Research in Progress: Can employees increase trust in CSR initiatives?

November 6, 2018

Geah Pressgrove, Carolyn Kim and Cristóbal Barra

By Geah Pressgrove, West Virginia University, Carolyn Kim, Biola University and Cristóbal Barra, Universidad de Chile

In 2017, the Edelman Trust Barometer reported that trust in government, business, media and NGOs had declined to the point of a global crisis of trust.

Based on current research, the lack of trust in organizations seems to stem from the belief that organizations are more interested in their personal gain than the good of society or the public. For public relations professionals, this is particularly concerning. Many would argue that a commitment to public good is fundamentally part of the profession.

As a function of avoiding the consequences of broken trust, many corporations engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Research indicates voluntary disclosure of environmental information is increasingly desired by corporate stakeholders, and is crucial to their decision-making.

The Page Center’s Sustainability Communications Initiative (SCI) has highlighted the many challenges sustainability communication faces. To address the growing interest in transparency related to environmental information and the realities organizations are facing in their sustainability measures, our study will focus on CSR communication as a form of public outreach related to environmental disclosures. We will investigate three central characteristics of such disclosures: spokesperson, reporting style and culture.

Corporate spokesperson
While the Edelman report paints a dismal picture of trust in organizations, one particularly interesting finding is that employees represent the most credible spokesperson in every aspect of corporate communication. However, public CSR disclosures are typically conveyed by c-suite and management-level spokespeople. While some scholars are addressing ways that employees engage through social media, there is a need to explore the implications for employees as ambassadors of corporate messages to external audiences, such as CSR reporting. This study considers the credibility of the spokesperson related to outcomes such as trust and purchase intention.

Corporate reporting styles
Corporate communicators convey their messages to key stakeholders in countless ways. The research in this area is both broad and deep. A consistent focus of these examinations, however, is written communication forms such as shareholder letters and annual reports. Despite the popularity of video as a way to convey corporate information, the effectiveness of this approach is less commonly considered. We intend to fill this gap in the literature by considering both emailed environmental CSR messages and video testimonials (both from an employee and CEO).  

Cultural factors 
Finally, to provide a cross-cultural perspective on the issue of the global decline in trust, participants will be recruited from both North America (U.S.) and South America (Chile). Chile is one of South America’s most stable and prosperous nations. In fact, the country moved to the status of a developed nation in the last decade, and is the only member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in South America. Insights from Hofstede et al., will provide a framework for cultural comparison of these two very different Western cultures.

The findings of this study will provide critical insight into how organizations can effectively navigate the crisis of trust, and valuable perspectives on best practices for CSR communications.

For further information on this study, email Geah Pressgove at, Carolyn Kim at or Cristóbal Barra at Results from the study will be available early next year. This project is supported by a Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center.