Doctoral thesis

Credibility in CSR communication : concepts, methods, analyses


155 p.

Thèse de doctorat: Università della Svizzera italiana, 2015 (jury note: Summa cum laude)

English In globalized markets, norms for legitimate behavior are scattered and businesses must satisfy often conflicting demands of various stakeholders simultaneously. This is why communicating their Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR) in a legitimate way is challenging. The present is also a high time for a debate of CSR issues and an era of public scrutiny and mistrust, catalyzed by real-time communication technologies and a 24/7 news cycle. Instances of non-credible communication, the misuse of CSR for marketing exercises, and corporate scandals with large environmental and social impact have sparked skepticism and mistrust toward CSR communication and its tools, particularly CSR reports. As a result, companies and stakeholders are trapped in the “credibility gap” of CSR reporting, which is harmful for both: stakeholders cannot satisfy their information needs regarding CSR and companies can hardly convey their CSR activities in a credible manner. Even though credibility is central to CSR communication and despite the fact that communicating non-credibly has lasting negative consequences for companies, there is no consensus about the concept of credibility and barely any studies exist that tackle credibility gaps systematically. This dissertation endeavors to investigate the issue of credibility in CSR communication theoretically, methodologically, and empirically. In particular, it analyzes companies’ and stakeholders’ perspectives of the “credibility gap” in CSR reporting. It explores concepts and methods to investigate how companies can communicate credibly and provides empirical evidence on the state-of-the-art of CSR reporting in Europe. To this end, it combines concepts from business ethics, management studies, political theory, and communication sciences and triangulates various methods. This dissertation is structured in four individual chapters framed by an introductory part and conclusions. The key findings can be summarized as follows. Chapter I proposes that communication is at the heart of CSR by highlighting Habermasian communicative action theory as the backbone of political CSR theory. Furthermore, it discusses how credible CSR communication leads to moral legitimacy and thus provides the conceptual foundation of this dissertation. Based on this theoretical advancement, the chapter develops a typology of CSR communication tools clustering them into deliberative and instrumental as well as published and unpublished tools. Chapter II presents quantitative content analysis as a suitable method to generate novel insights in business ethics, and especially CSR, research. Given the diametrical advantages of human- and software-based coding procedures, a concurrent mixed methods approach is proposed. To account for the need of ethical reasoning in business ethics research, the chapter suggests that quantitative content analyses be followed by an ethical interpretation of the quantitative results. Chapter III analyzes, for the first time, the “credibility gap” in CSR reporting from the perspective of the company, by applying quantitative content analysis as proposed in Chapter II. To this end, the credibility of CSR reports from 11 European countries is analyzed based on a multidimensional operationalization of credibility along Habermasian theory. Parametric statistical analyses reveal that European CSR reports are credible at a mediocre level. It is the content of the reports that matter for credibility, while the impact of contextual, format, and firm-level factors is secondary. Furthermore, voluntary standardization impacts credibility positively, whereas legislation does not yet have the same positive effect. Addressing the stakeholders’ perspective, Chapter IV develops a measurement scale to test the perceptions of credibility of CSR reports. In doing so, the chapter builds on a novel conceptualization of credibility along the Habermsian validity claims. The scale development comprises nine stages including a literature review, a delphi study, and three validation studies applying exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses to arrive at the final 16-item PERCRED (perceived credibility) scale. Participants in the final study perceived CSR reports to be rather credible, regardless of whether the same reports had been found credible or non-credible in Chapter III. The PERCRED measure can help companies and researchers deepen the understanding of why CSR reports are often perceived as being non-credible tools. The findings of this dissertation demonstrate that the “credibility gap” equally exists from the companies’ and the stakeholders’ perspectives. To eventually bridge it, striving for true, sincere, appropriate, and understandable communication by all parties is a viable avenue. Describing credibility as a communication quality and perception construct along the four sub-dimensions truth, sincerity, appropriateness, and understandability advances the understanding of credibility in the communication sciences. This dissertation contributes to theory development in the emerging field of CSR reporting by presenting credible CSR reports as facilitators to re- and maintain legitimacy and by systematically examining this notion from the perspective of companies and stakeholders. The thesis further advances political CSR theory as it empirically confirms the impact of voluntary standardization and stresses the role of the nation state. The findings of this dissertation also hold implications for public policy makers to level the playing field in CSR reporting in order to reach credibility consistently; companies are provided with a tool to measure credibility perceptions of their reports and to better evaluate the roots of stakeholders’ criticism and mistrust.
  • English
Information, communication and media sciences
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