When planning CSR, engagement gets employees on board

September 5, 2017 • Jonathan McVerry


When companies begin planning corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies, executives will want to get their stakeholders involved from the beginning, according to a recently published Page-funded study.

Published online this month in Public Relations Review, the study asked communication, CSR and sustainability managers from major U.S. companies how they viewed their company’s CSR initiatives and what, if any, action items were effective in getting vital buy-in from stakeholders.

Researchers Joon Soo Lim, professor at Syracuse University, and Cary Greenwood, associate director for public relations research at the Debiasing and Lay Informatics Lab at the University of Oklahoma, examined two strategies—stakeholder engagement and stakeholder responsiveness. They used results from an extensive survey to decide how each strategy affected companies’ business, community and employee relations.

Responsive strategy is when a company builds its initiatives using possible threats and current issues in making decisions. Engagement strategy brings in stakeholders at the beginning of the planning process and builds initiatives through brainstorming and stakeholder input—creating buy-in from the beginning.

According to the results, responsiveness and engagement strategies connected positively with business and community stakeholders, but “Engagement really brought in the employees,” Greenwood said.

“Engagement strategy made the greatest impact on employees, which was probably the biggest takeaway from this study,” she added. “The key is to get them involved early, and not evaluate their reactions later and change course. It’s really about sharing some power.”

She said one respondent, a sustainability manager who also agreed to be interviewed, put it this way: “Sustainability is not my job; it’s everyone’s job, [and] employee engagement is essential.”

The project emerged after Lim and Greenwood observed a wealth of research literature on how stakeholders felt about a company’s CSR activities. The researchers wanted to get a managerial perspective—an often difficult population to reach.

Pulling from a collection of the largest publically-traded U.S. companies, the researchers identified communicators that may have a role in their company’s CSR planning. With assistance from their Page Center grant, they sent surveys to the group with in-depth questions on different ways their company’s strategic planning helped reached CSR goals. In the future, Greenwood said they would like to expand the study to include even more executives, specifically executives responsible for CSR decision-making.

“This was essentially an exploratory study,” she said. “A larger response will provide a lot of value, but what we found was quite illustrative about how corporations go about their engagement process.”