Don't be a target: Avoiding perceptions of corporate social irresponsibility

By Nathan T. Washburn and Donald Lange

News audiences have short attention spans. They like tidy scandals with sensational impact, innocent victims and clear villains. Interest drops when stories have too much ambiguity or complexity. Leaders who understand how perceptions of harm, victimhood and culpability are shaped can take steps to address potential problems before they surface — and to influence opinions in the critical early hours when a crisis flares up. Our research, first published in the April 2012 issue of Academy of Management Review and more recently in the fall 2013 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, outlines a three-pronged model for predicting the stories that will stick.

Sensational impact: In the domain of public opinion, perception often matters more than reality. The impact of a company’s actions may be exaggerated or downplayed based on at least two factors: how much the effects are concentrated in time or space, and the level of shock value. For example, quantitatively speaking, a death is a death. But from the public’s vantage, multiple people dying in a single car accident seems far worse than the same number dying in multiple accidents spread over several months. Likewise, dying in an unusual crash, such as a car plunging off a cliff, seems worse than dying in an ordinary collision.

Innocent victims: The perceived plight of a victim is also subjective. In general, weaker victims such as children, the elderly and the poor generate more public sympathy than stronger victims. Other factors such as victim attractiveness and likeability can affect perceptions.

Clear villain: The perceived culpability of an organization also figures into perceptions of corporate social irresponsibility. If a company seems to have ignored warning signs before disaster strikes — or if the company has taken shortcuts to cut costs or tampered with evidence to hide wrongdoing — then perceptions of culpability increase. Other factors can decrease blame, such as plausible alternative explanations of harmful effects or similar behavior by other companies.

Public perception of corporate social irresponsibility is not always fair or earned, and reversing a negative narrative is not always possible once a story goes viral. Leaders who understand the three elements of a resonating story have an advantage when the time comes to frame conversations and present information to head off a potential backlash.

A longer version of this article appears in the fall 2013 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review under the title, Does Your Company Seem Socially Irresponsible? The same authors published Understanding Attributions of Corporate Social Responsibility in the April 2012 issue of Academy of Management Review.

Nathan T. Washburn, Ph.D., is assistant professor of management and academic director of the full-time MBA program at Thunderbird School of Global Management near Phoenix, Arizona. Donald Lange, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.