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Institutionalization of corporate social responsibility within corporate communications: Combining institutional, sensemaking and communication perspectives

Friederike Schultz (Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Free University Berlin, Berlin, Germany)
Stefan Wehmeier (Institute for Marketing and Management, Syddanskuniversitet Denmark, Odense, Denmark)

Corporate Communications: An International Journal

ISSN: 1356-3289

Article publication date: 2 February 2010




The purpose of the paper is to develop a new framework depicting the incorporation of concepts such as corporate social responsibility (CSR) within corporate communication as a process that called “institutionalization by translation”. The paper aims to develop a micro‐meso‐macro‐perspective to analyze why and how organizations institutionalize CSR with which effects.


The paper brings together institutional, sensemaking and communication theories. The paper builds on neo‐institutionalism to frame the external conditions that foster or hinder the institutionalization of CSR on the macro‐ and meso‐level. And the paper uses sensemaking and communication theories to describe this process on the meso‐ and micro‐level. The paper illustrates the analysis by describing the CSR strategies of a large European energy company.


CSR can be regarded as an empty concept that is based on moral communication and filled with different meanings. The analysis describes how CSR is internally translated (moralization and amoralization), which communication strategies are developed here (symbolic, dialogic, etc.) and that CSR communications are publicly negotiated. The analysis shows that the institutionalization of CSR bears not only opportunities, but also risks for corporations and can, therefore, be described as a “downward spirale of legitimacy and upward spiral of CSR institutionalization”. Finally, alternative ways of coping with external demands are developed (“management by hypocrisis” and “defaulted communication”).

Practical implications

The paper shows risk and explains more effective ways of building organizational legitimacy.


The originality lays in the macro‐meso‐micro‐perspective on the institutionalization of CSR. It allows the description of this process and its effects from the background of constraints and sensemaking and offers a new perspective on organizational legitimacy building.



Schultz, F. and Wehmeier, S. (2010), "Institutionalization of corporate social responsibility within corporate communications: Combining institutional, sensemaking and communication perspectives", Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 15 No. 1, pp. 9-29.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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