The Governmentality Dilemma of Explicit and Implicit CSR Communication

We are pleased to welcome authors Mette Morsing and Laura J Spence who published an article titled “Corporate social responsibility (CSR) communication and small and medium sized enterprises: The governmentality dilemma of explicit and implicit CSR communication” in Human Relations. The article will be free to read for a limited time. Below they reflect on the impact and significance of their research.

huma_71_2.coverIt is often argued that it benefits an organisation to communicate about its corporate social responsibility (CSR) engagement. CSR communication is said to enhance the organisational reputation among external stakeholders and create pride and loyalty among internal stakeholders. In this paper we challenge the benefits of CSR communication, focusing on small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). We argue that owner-managers in smaller businesses appreciate an informal, face-to-face and non-visible communication style. They don’t on the whole like to formalize and broadcast their corporate social responsibility engagement, preferring to just get on and ‘do it’. We refer to this as ‘implicit CSR communication’. They are not likely to use the language of CSR since it is explicitly corporate, but might very well practice small business social responsibility – just not shout about it. However, SMEs are currently expected to communicate more strategically and conspicuously about their CSR activities in their role as suppliers to large firms. Large firm customers commonly seek to meet their own compliance standards by requesting reports and validation of CSR engagement in their supply chain. We refer to this approach which is common in large firms as ‘explicit CSR communication’.

Finding themselves caught in between their own preference for implicit CSR communication and the pressure for more explicit CSR communication, we discuss how SMEs have to navigate three resulting tensions relating to their authenticity, values and identity.

First, asking for explicit CSR commercialization requires them to effectively ‘sell’ their ethics (we call this authenticity commercialization). This implies that SMEs experience a tension when they have to employ their implicit core values for external branding purposes.

Second, rather than look to their own values as guidance, SMEs are required to prioritise and adopt those of their customers. This value control implies SME owner-managers feel that externally defined requests for certain elements in their CSR reporting are imposed upon their own internally held values. Third, rather than looking to their local reputation and community identity as the foundation of their business, SMEs are being asked to identify with the global supply chain and take some responsibility for correspondingly global CSR issues. This identity disruption means that the SME’s identity becomes caught between local and global value orientations.

As a result of these three tensions, the seemingly positive action by a large customer to require explicit CSR communication by their SME suppliers becomes a point of tension for the authenticity, values and identity of the smaller firm.  These may be easily resolved in some cases but in others is a further example of large firms using the power they have over smaller suppliers for their own ends, whatever the cost to others.

For more from the journal visit the homepage!

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