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CSR as crisis risk: expanding how we conceptualize the relationship

Timothy Coombs (Nicholson School of Communication, University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, USA.)
Sherry Holladay (Nicholson School of Communication, University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, USA.)

Corporate Communications: An International Journal

ISSN: 1356-3289

Article publication date: 7 April 2015

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Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to explore the role of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a crisis risk. The bulk of the current research on CSR and crisis examined the role of CSR as an asset in a crisis. CSR as crisis risk is a direct function of CSR’s increasingly important role in reputation management. CSR has become an important aspect of corporate reputations – it is one of the dimensions used to assess a corporation’s crisis. The value of CSR to reputations is illustrated in the RepTrak reputation measure from the Reputation Institute and the value it places upon CSR. If stakeholders can challenge CSR claims by arguing a corporation is acting irresponsibly, the stakeholders can erode the corporation’s reputational assets by creating a challenge crisis. A CSR-based challenge occurs when stakeholders redefine a corporation’s current practices as irresponsible. The CSR-based challenge can be risk because it can damage reputational assets and potentially escalate into a crisis. CSR becomes a leverage point for stakeholders seeking to engage in a challenge crisis. As corporations place more value on the CSR dimension of reputation, CSR-based challenge becomes an increasingly powerful leverage point.

Design/methodology/approach

The paper is conceptual with an emphasis on theory building.

Findings

The manuscript details the CSR-based challenge process. It examines the nature of CSR-based challenges, how they can become threats to corporations, and how corporations can respond to the threats. There is also an explanation of how CSR-based challenges indicate the shift to private politics/social issues management and the implications of this shift for advancing a neoliberal perspective.

Practical implications

CSR and crises have a much more complex relationship than current research has identified. CSR can be a crisis risk, not just an asset used to protect a reputation during a crisis. CSR can be the reason a crisis exists and threats a corporation – it is a crisis risk. The primary manifestation of CSR as a crisis risk is the challenge crisis premised on social irresponsibility, what the authors term the CSR-based challenge crisis. This paper will detail the process whereby CSR is transformed from a crisis resource to a crisis threat. The end result of this analysis will be set of insights into CSR-based challenge crises. These insights can help stakeholders seeking to create social change through a challenge and corporate managers seeking to address a challenge crisis.

Social implications

Challenge crises are an example of private politics/social issues management, when stakeholders seek to create changes in corporate behavior by engaging the organization directly rather than through public policy efforts. The paper offers insights into how social issues management can work to create social change by altering problematic corporate behaviors.

Originality/value

There is limited research into CSR as a crisis risk and in understanding how challenge crises help to create social change. This paper will provide new insights into CSR as a crisis risk, challenge crises, and private politics. Ideas from public relations, corporate communication, and political communication will be fused to create a novel framework for illuminating these related topics.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

This paper was originally presented at The 2nd International CSR Communication Conference 2013, Aarhus, Denmark.

Citation

Coombs, T. and Holladay, S. (2015), "CSR as crisis risk: expanding how we conceptualize the relationship", Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 144-162. https://doi.org/10.1108/CCIJ-10-2013-0078

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited