The Impact of National Culture on the Salience of CSR Dimensions in International Media Coverage
Last summer, I spent six weeks doing media research in Ann Arbor, Michigan as the 2017 winner of the Grunig PRIME Research Fellowship. PRIME’s global scope, diverse international team, and its worldwide client base made the company an ideal place for me to be. At the end of my experience, I wrote a paper to remind international PR professionals that concepts habitually referenced on an everyday basis are the products of social construction and, therefore, meanings may vary from one society to another. Specifically, the study concerned corporate social responsibility and its aspects in international media coverage. For the full paper please visit here: Salience of_CSR (PDF).
The meaning of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has always been contested. A recent Aflac survey revealed that even CSR executives couldn’t agree on how to define it, while CSR communicators, investors, and customers had very different ideas about what constitutes socially responsible corporate behavior. Some people believe that CSR refers to corporate charity; others link it to employee relations, environmental protection, or a company’s involvement with social issues such as diversity and human rights. In part, this is due to the multi-dimensionality of the concept and, partly, because of its inherent context-specific nature. Earlier definitions, such as those suggested by Bowen (1953) and Sethi (1975) explicitly link CSR to values and norms of the society in which an organization operates.
In my study, I examined the relative importance of various CSR aspects in news content published across 17 countries and how the prominence of certain issues is linked to the countries’ value systems, as suggested by Hofstede, Hofstede and Minkov (2010). I analyzed the content of 6,692 CSR-related newspaper articles and placed them into five broad categories that consistently appear in various definitions of CSR (Dahlsrud, 2008): environmental responsibility; economic responsibility; stakeholder responsibility (including employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, unions and others); the social dimension, or community involvement; and voluntariness, which includes corporate charity and ethics.
The results revealed that some CSR dimensions, relatively speaking, are equally relevant in all nations, while others are not For instance, stakeholder responsibility issues were quite prominent in most countries and generated from 30% to 80% of countries’ CSR coverage. Environmental issues were most frequently discussed in China (12.3%), Italy (19.5%), and Switzerland (19%), while they were less prominent in other countries (7% on average). Western countries, especially those located in Western Europe, expressed greater concern about economic responsibilities; this topic drove 40% to 65% of the total CSR-related coverage. Asian media were significantly more likely to emphasize social aspects and voluntariness. Thus, almost half of all Chinese articles discussed companies in either the context of community involvement or voluntariness; in other countries, these two CSR aspects received relatively little coverage.
Finally, the findings suggest that certain aspects of corporate social responsibility were indeed associated with value dimensions identified by Geert Hofstede. A multinomial regression analysis where the economic dimension served as a baseline revealed the following associations (please see the full paper for the descriptions):
- Countries with higher Power Distance were more likely to discuss stakeholder responsibility than economic responsibility.
- Higher scores on Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Long-Term Orientation were associated with the lower salience of the stakeholder dimension in comparison with the economic dimension.
- The salience of the environmental responsibility dimension was negatively associated with Power Distance, Individualism, and Uncertainty Avoidance, meaning that these cultures place greater importance on companies’ economic responsibilities than on their treatment of the environment.
- Somewhat surprisingly, Masculine cultures, considered very competitive, were more likely to focus on the environmental dimension than on economic responsibility.
- The social dimension (community involvement) was positively linked to Long-Term Orientation, suggesting that in cultures where long-term goals are more important than short-term, greater importance is placed on what firms are doing to help solve social problems rather than in whether they generate profits.
- Voluntariness was positively associated with Long-Term Orientation and Indulgence, meaning societies that place greater importance on enjoying life and having fun also place greater importance on corporate charity and ethical corporate behavior.
The study has important practical implications for public relations practitioners working for multinational corporations, as it may potentially guide the decisions regarding the focus of their CSR efforts in the host countries. The primary task of a CSR professional is to precisely identify how their audiences see a socially responsible company, and then tailor the organization’s CSR strategy and messages accordingly. Ideally, a superior CSR strategy should aim at “above average” performance on multiple dimensions. However, a company’s management, its shareholders, and CSR professionals expect corporate public relations efforts to be efficient. Therefore, when it comes to CSR communication, as both media space and audience attention are limited, tailoring a company’s CSR strategy and messages to a country’s specific needs may result in more positive media coverage, and consequently, in more favorable attitudes and better relationships with host audiences.
Mila Khalitova is a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida. Khalitova was awarded the Grunig PRIME Research Fellowship in 2017.