Should companies try to hold the steering wheel in online discussions about corporate social responsibility? Our research shows that the reactions of stakeholders are more positive when there is less moderation of discussion by the organization.

To broadly engage with the public about societal, environmental, and political issues, is strategically relevant to organizations in their ongoing efforts to safeguard legitimacy and social acceptance beyond the financial bottom line. A lot of this stakeholder engagement is happening via social media.

Online Dialogue Gone Askew 
A few years back, the American Bank JPMorgan Chase attempted to engage with finance students on career-related questions via social media. To do so, the bank had—under the hashtag #askJPM—set up a Twitter Q&A. Within minutes, Twitter users hijacked the hashtag to criticize the bank for issues ranging from tax fraud to business dealings with Mexican drug cartels. Only hours later, when realizing the potential backlash to its reputation, JPMorgan Chase canceled the campaign. They did so, publicly, in a tweet that reflects remarkably on their own failure to manage stakeholder conversations online: “Tomorrow’s Q&A is cancelled. Bad idea. Back to the drawing board.”

To Moderate or Not to Moderate? 
Organizations regularly struggle to meaningfully engage with their stakeholders on societal, political, and environmental topics via social media. More often than not, such discourses unravel into splintered and negative conversations. Corporate communicators need to know whether it is useful to restrict or encourage access to discussions and how different levels of guidance and steering (namely: ‘moderation’) may influence attitudes of their clients and customers. How should online stakeholder conversations be managed? Should they be managed at all? How much moderation from the organization is necessary or tolerated by social media users?

Shifting Focus from Practices to Effects 
In our research, we build on recent studies that have explored different practices and patterns of corporate interventions in online conversations about corporate social responsibility (CSR), to go on and study the effects of these practices in conversations with stakeholders. Previous research has found that corporations that effectively engage in online dialogue with stakeholders use four different approaches: (1) directing conversations, (2) moderating conversations (3) building ‘open-script’ conversations and (4) crowdsourcing conversations ‘bottom up’. Drawing on and extending this work, we conducted experimental studies to test the effects of different approaches in managing online conversation (i.e., based on different levels of ‘moderation’ by the organization) on important stakeholder communication outcomes, such as attitudes, trust, commitment to, and satisfaction with an organization. Our results show that the level of attitude, trust, commitment, and satisfaction varies significantly with the conversational approach employed. In sum, the outcomes of the different experimental studies suggest that stakeholder outcomes are positively influenced by low levels of moderation.

Hands Off — Mostly
Organizations must constantly and actively decide which online conversations to enter, with whom to engage, and to what degree to interfere with, manage or control these conversations. Our experiments would suggest that it’s best for organizations to take a “hands off” approach on social media, where stakeholders can enter or initiate the conversation on almost any CSR issue. However, while more openness und rather ‘unguided’ conversations may generally lead to more favorable stakeholder communication outcomes, in cases of high issue complexity, a certain level of ‘curation’ may indeed be appreciated by stakeholders. To date, such strategies remain empirically under-investigated in CSR contexts and their effects on stakeholders online, which would affect organizational legitimacy in the long run, remain an object in need of further exploration.

The original research article is available open access here.

Alexander Buhmann, Ph.D., is associate professor at BI Norwegian Business School, and director of the Nordic Alliance for Communication & Management. His research is situated at the intersection of communication, digital technology, and management. Find information on recent projects and publications here. Follow Alexander on LinkedIn or Twitter. Email:


Kateryna Maltseva, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Communication and Culture at the Norwegian Business School. Kateryna’s research is focused on self-tracking and self-quantification and gamification. She is currently working on how self-tracking affects individuals’ cognition, performance, consumption habits and satisfaction with products and service.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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