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Barbara Miller Gaither publishes article in Public Relations Review

The associate professor of communications conducted a corporate social responsibility study, exploring how company-cause relationships and acknowledgement of benefit impacts perceived motivations and skepticism.

Associate Professor Barbara Miller Gaither recently co-authored an article published in the November 2017 edition of Public Relations Review examining corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and how the public perceives such efforts.

Associate Professor Barbara Miller Gaither

Titled “Perceived motivations for corporate social responsibility initiatives in socially stigmatized industries,” the article investigates how company-cause relationships and acknowledgment of benefit impacts perceived motivations and skepticism. Miller Gaither collaborated on the CSR study with former Elon University colleague Lucinda Austin, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As part of their research, Miller Gaither and Austin utilized a fictitious cola company advocating for either public obesity initiatives (an issue to which the company also contributes negatively) versus literacy initiatives (unrelated to the company in any way) as its stimulus — along with whether the company acknowledged any firm-serving motivations for the initiative. Additionally, they controlled for the source of the information — as either from the company (in a press release) or from a third party (in a news story).   

Using a between-subjects experimental design with a national sample of participants, the researchers examined: 1) how audiences perceive motives for a company with divergent CSR activities, when one addresses a negative impact of the company’s existing business model, and 2) whether acknowledgement of self-serving interests reduces public skepticism of CSR initiatives by stigmatized industries, as it has been found to do in other CSR contexts. 

The study found that participants perceived greater firm-serving motives (benefit salience) when the company had a negative contribution to the CSR initiative (i.e., it was a condition the company was attempting to eliminate or reduce) than when the company had no relationship to the CSR initiative. Participants were also more likely to view the company as acting in the interests of the company versus the public.

When high-fit, negative contribution CSR initiatives do cause backlash or skepticism, other studies have suggested these negative outcomes could be reduced when companies acknowledge their firm-serving motives in addition to society-serving motives. However, Miller Gaither and Austin’s findings indicate that acknowledgment of benefit did not lessen skepticism or enhance consumer attributions of motivations in a socially stigmatized industry.

Miller Gaither and Austin have been frequent collaborators in recent years and have examined corporate social responsibility extensively. This year, the strategic communications professors co-led presentations at the 2017 International Public Relations Conference and 2017 Association for Education and Journalism and Mass Communication Conference, where they won the top poster award for the public relations division. They also shared the Top Faculty Research Paper Award at a PRSA conference in October 2016.

The two professors have another paper in-press with PR Inquiry, which is co-authored with Elon Honors student and communications alumna MaryClaire Schulz ’17.

Tommy Kopetskie,
10/11/2017 2:20 PM