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Rethinking CSR: Public Relations and the advance of meaning-making through the corporate persona

There is a major role for PR to play in conveying the persona of an organization in a manner that allows it to claim it is immersed in the everyday life of its stakeholders. By Burton St. John III.


What we value and care about in our society doesn’t just happen.  Are you a lover of Honda cars?  Do you adhere to a vegan lifestyle? Are you adamant that live music venues need community support? If so, you didn’t develop such values, and identifications, in isolation. Rather, there are a series of messages and understandings circulating within your society on these items that have 1) resonated with your inclinations and interests, 2) made meaning for you, and 3) encouraged you to identify with such positions.  
 
Public relations can have a significant role in this process. In fact, one of the more intriguing aspects of the public relations field is its ability to latch on to new ways of thinking about how institutions and individuals come to some mutual understandings of what is valuable, and how those shared meanings set the stage for attitudes and actions. But public relations’ role in that meaning (or sense)-making process is not a given, and is certainly not linear.
 
The reason? The public relations field has a tendency to first focus on a particular technique, work to convince both its own practitioners and would-be clients that it has mastery over that technique, and then come to grips with how such mastery can make a difference in society. 
 
There is a long record of this: the field’s decades-long focus on various ways to win over journalists (media relations), an emphasis on public relations as a consultant to (and amplifier of) corporate efficiency (e.g., the total quality management movement) and, currently, the preoccupation with the central role that public relations can play with social media monitoring, communication and relationship-building. 
 
However, what if public relations practitioners shifted their thinking more toward first considering how representations are seen (and understood) in society, and then think about technique? By "representations," I mean, at a minimum, two aspects: 1) how a client sees itself within a society and, 2) how its stakeholders see themselves in relationship to that client.  And there is a particular arena suitable for public relations people to advocate a focus on such representations – the continued interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR).
 
A right to operate
 
Before continuing, let’s stipulate a few things about CSR. First, there is some blurriness among scholars on how CSR arose in the first place (and its exact time of appearance is debatable, but is generally placed in the 1950s). However, there is a significant school of thought that CSR arose originally as a way for corporations to show, in a quasi-legalistic way, that they were demonstrating a right to operate in a democratic society by, at a minimum, doing business legally and ethically. 
 
This meant, of course, that businesses were not only following all federal and state laws but also asserting a right to operate by displaying a responsibility to communities (e.g., providing decent salaries and benefits to employees, offering financial gifts to foundations, schools, and cultural organizations, presenting products and services that met customer’ needs).
 
Second, this rather legalistic way of looking at CSR has been overtaken, especially in the last 20 years, by a very product-centered conception of CSR. In this more contemporary calculation, CSR is mostly transactional; the focus is on building identifications between a product/service and the appropriate customer segments.  This understanding of CSR focuses more on approaches like cause promotion, philanthropy, and social marketing and how they can all work to link a customer’s sense of identity back to a company’s offerings.
 
However, both these well-established views, one centering on a right to operate and the other centering on building brand identity, tend to downplay how CSR also offers another very valuable approach – that of the organization conveying a persona that allows it to claim that is it immersed in the everyday life of its stakeholders. In other words, the corporation, through CSR communications, provides its defining narrative that lays the groundwork for furthering (or resonating with) eventual consumer self-definitions (e.g., "I’m a Honda lover, vegan, live music advocate," etc.).
 
Constructing a persona
 
For example, although it can certainly be said that the major smartphone manufacturers (Samsung, Motorola etc.) are involved in traditionally-understood CSR (e.g., Samsung donates technology to support several science and technology education competitions, and Motorola funds several technology and innovation grants) one can also see that these companies construct a persona by using messages and imagery that cast their phones as being integral to everyday life.  Samsung ads for the Galaxy S3 say, "Wouldn’t it be cool if your phone could read your mind, or your body?" then points out that certain swipes or taps on the phone are like a sign language that allows the phone to, indeed, read your desires. 
 
Motorola points to the "Jelly Bean" application on their Droid RAZR and says it’s "the phone that knows where you need to be," asserting that their phone is a valuable, almost consultative, companion. Granted, there is a strong product feature element in these examples, but the larger persona that these companies attempt to portray is that of corporate entities that are helpful, modern, smart, and intuitive about what their stakeholder audiences desire.  Such personas are important to portray, and substantiate through action, especially in the high-tech market arena where products become obsolete in a very short period of time. 
 
If Samsung and Motorola’s key audiences see these personas as consonant to the kind of values they prize, these audiences would likely see a societal good in what these companies are doing that transcends any specific features of a particular smartphone. 
 
A sense-making process
 
In this way, the presentation of CSR messages/imagery is more than proving a "right to operate" or attempting to link only a product’s attributes to the identification needs of each consumer/stakeholder – it is an initiative designed to create a shared space of meaning-making between the individual and the corporate persona.  
 
As scholars Stefan Wehmeier of the University of Vienna, Austria, and Friederike Schultz, of the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands wrote in 2011, "CSR itself is a societal narrative that is enacted within public discourse: corporations not only create their own CSR stories (sensegiving); ... they try to make sense narratively out of the concept itself. CSR communication can therefore be regarded as a sensemaking process..."
 
My own research supports their observation, but I add the following: the sensegiving narrative often comes through the voice of the corporate persona, and this persona is an entity that needs the active involvement of the public relations person. The public relations professional should not just let the persona "happen," but, realizing that its presence can be immensely powerful, the public relations practitioner should facilitate and guide how the corporation presents the persona by:
  • Advocating that the representations be sensitive to the values and identities of stakeholders.
  • Pushing top decision makers within the corporation to insure that all representations are truthful and accurate.
  • Insure that all representations are backed up by appropriate action.
  • Encourage adjustments to the persona as is warranted by changes in the marketplace, societal needs and the emergent concerns and values of stakeholder groups.
What PR can offer
 
In summary, Wehmeier and Schultz’s observation goes directly to the heart of what public relations can offer the corporation in a time of multiple societal pressures, the bending of realities through new technologies, and the challenge of diverse publics that are in flux (and sometimes, turmoil).  Public relations practitioners can, through a research-informed sensitivity to the values of their clients and the continually emergent identities of stakeholder groups, assist clients in conveying a truthful and constructive corporate persona.  
 
To clarify, persona is not merely about image, it is about the collection of character and action that the corporation puts forth in the public arena, so that it can engage with multiple publics. In the process, through gathering feedback, the corporate persona should be continually informed by how stakeholders similarly represent themselves, and then adjust itself accordingly so that it contributes meaningfully to society.
 
 
Thought Leader Profile
Burton St. John III, APR, is an associate professor of communications at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.  He is the lead editor for the book Pathways to Public Relations: Histories of Practice and Profession, slated for publication by Routledge in February 2014.
 
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