Communicating corporate social responsibility: Corporate responsibility as social conformity or CSR

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Richard Costa, Director and Head of Corporate Reporting at Ensemble Studio

There is a great deal of ambiguity that shrouds the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Not only is there a lack of consensus as to what it actually means, more than ever companies are also expected to communicate theirs. It’s a riddle wrapping an enigma. How should corporations approach communicating corporate responsibility?

In the first post in the series, ‘Communicating corporate social responsibility’, I provided an overview of three main ways of approaching the riddle wrapping an enigma that is communicating corporate responsibility. Let’s now take a closer look at the first one.

Corporate responsibility as social conformity or CSR

Most corporations acknowledge that their social and environmental responsibility will be judged according to the ideal aspiration of any given time. Some of them approach communication with the intention of signalling compliance with shared norms and expectations.

Communication of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is often adopted as a means to gain social acceptance or appear legitimate. For example, organisations that have a negative environmental performance may choose to report on their charitable contributions.

This is not to suggest that all businesses engage in corporate social responsibility as a manipulative exercise. Many genuinely care, act affirmatively and report accordingly. Or communicate about changes that have been made within the company because they have embraced and responded to shifts in expectations.

Nonetheless, motivation is a slippery subject and raises ethical questions as to why an organisation is engaging in communicating about corporate responsibility.

There are evident implications for credibility when, rightly or wrongly, the audience may interpret communication as window dressing or greenwashing.


In the next post, ‘Corporate responsibility as a strategic activity’, we will examine the idea of corporate responsibility, including its communication, as strategic business activity.

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