I know of a public relations agency that had a client that did secret CSR. The client had a bad history with a particular issue and gave the PR agency funds to do awareness prevention campaigns that were related to the issue, and it never wanted itself to be identified as the sponsor.
I don’t know why the client decided to keep its identity a secret, but one possible reason is that news stories about the CSR efforts could publicize the bad things the company used to do – things that most people probably don’t associate with the company today.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many professional communicators today who avoid publicizing their companies’ green efforts, and of course we know from research that companies get substantially better results when their stakeholders are aware of their CSR efforts (Bhattacharya & Sen, 2004; Sen, Bhattacharya, & Korschun, 2006).
Some practitioners might avoid promoting their green efforts because they are concerned about being accused of greenwashing. As identified by scholars such as Bivins (2009), companies take a risk when they promote their CSR efforts because the act of promoting the efforts can make the efforts look disingenuous.
As you probably know, “greenwashing” refers to misleading environmental communication, and the term developed as people identified inconsistencies between companies’ actual behavior and claims about being green.
The term was coined in the 1980s by Jay Westerveld who saw the inconsistency in hotels that didn’t have recycling programs but encouraged the reuse of towels (Romero, 2008).
Through my research, which is available in the current issue of PRSA’s Public Relations Journal (vol. 5, No. 3), I investigated the fairness of online greenwashing accusations against Starbucks.
Highlights From the Study
In summary, most of the reactions to Starbucks’ environmental communication efforts that I analyzed were positive. Even the critical public tended to applaud Starbucks’ green initiatives while asking for more change, asking critical questions, or making a jab about Starbucks’ environmental impact.
When Starbucks was criticized, the arguments used were nearly always based on facts, observations, the need for more information, and requests for change, as opposed to deep-seated cynicism against corporate America.
Nevertheless, most of the criticisms I analyzed were technically unfair because they asked Starbucks to do things that Starbucks is already doing or they criticized Starbucks for advertisements that were actually student ad projects that had been posted to YouTube.
Starbucks did not post any comments to the criticisms I analyzed, not even to the greenwashing site where its efforts had been labeled as greenwashing.
This illustrates a drawback to Starbucks’ strategy for online engagement. A Starbucks representative explained that the company focuses on the zeitgeist of conversation on its own website. There is a benefit to driving conversations to your home turf; however, organizations should also consider participating in vibrant conversations about themselves on other sites, especially given the results of a study by Lariscy, Avery, Sweetser, and Howes (2009). In their survey of public relations practitioners, most respondents reported that they had found inaccurate information about their organizations in online chatrooms. Starbucks is missing out on vibrant conversations that are regularly occurring on Starbucks fan blogs. There are many Starbucks employees and former employees who anonymously participate on these blogs who offer both vigorous defense of the company’s practices and behind-the-scenes criticism about environmental practices.
Given the lack of trust in companies and traditional media today, these informal word-of-mouth online channels should not be overlooked. The study I conducted points to the importance of building on Jeong-Nam Kim and Yunna Rhee’s (2011) recent study in the Journal of Public Relations Research about megaphoning, scouting, and microboundary spanning.
Their concept of megaphoning refers to employees’ positive or negative communication about their organization to external audiences.
They defined scouting as employees’ voluntary communication efforts to bring relevant information to the organization.
The term microboundary spanning refers to “employees’ voluntary communication behaviors to
(a) disperse positive information for one’s organization,
(b) search and obtain valuable organization-related information from internal and external constituencies, and
(c) disseminate acquired information internally with relevant internal personnel and groups” (p. 249).
It would be interesting for future research to investigate the perceived credibility of online comments that are posted by people claiming to be employees and former employees.
Bhattacharya, C. B., & Sen, S. (2004). Doing better at doing good: When, why, and how consumers respond to corporate social initiatives. California Marketing Review, 47(1), 9-24.
Bivins, T. (2009). Mixed media: Moral distinctions in advertising, public relations, and journalism (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Kim, J-N., & Rhee, Y. (2011). Strategic thinking about employee communication behavior in public relations: Testing the models of megaphoning and scouting effects in Korea. Journal of Public Relations Research, 23(3), 243-268. doi:10.1080/1062726X.2011.582204
Lariscy, R. W., Avery, E. J., Sweetser, K. D., & Howes, P. (2009). Monitoring public opinion in cyberspace: How corporate public relations is facing the challenge. Public Relations Journal, 3(4), 1-17.
Romero, P. (2008, September 17). Beware of Green Marketing, Warns Greenpeace Exec. Retrieved from https://abs-cbnnews.com/special-report/09/16/08/beware-green-marketing-warns-greenpeace-exec
Sen, S., Bhattacharya, C. B., & Korschun, D. (2006). The role of corporate social responsibility in strengthening multiple stakeholder relationships: A field experiment. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 34(2), 158-166. doi:10.1177/0092070305284978