Jessalynn Strauss, an assistant professor in the School of Communications, wrote her first book, "Challenging Corporate Social Responsibility: Lessons for public relations from the casino industry," demonstrating the paradoxes in contemporary corporate social responsibility through the example of the gambling industry.
Years ago, while working toward her doctorate degree, School of Communications Assistant Professor Jessalynn Strauss escaped the monotony of life the same way 40 million others do each year: she headed to Las Vegas.
The trips to Sin City, which began during her master’s studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, became more convenient when she continued her Ph.D. work at the University of Oregon a few years later. The Eugene, Oregon, campus was just a 90-minute flight to Las Vegas, and hotel and airfare in the late 2000s cost Strauss and a friend as little as $200 for a weekend trip.
The bright lights and study break were the trips’ initial draw, but Strauss – a Maryland native – grew enamored with the desert city’s history and present-day culture. “I became really interested in the academic part of Las Vegas, and its history,” she said. “I was a history major, so that makes sense, and Las Vegas has a fascinating history.”
Strauss’ interest in Las Vegas evolved over time, and she wrote her 2010 dissertation on how casino corporations interact with the city’s many nonprofit organizations. Her research into the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the gambling industry has continued in the years since and led to her first book, “Challenging Corporate Social Responsibility: Lessons for public relations from the casino industry,” published in May 2015 by Routledge.
While Strauss’ Ph.D. dissertation focused solely on the Las Vegas Strip, “Challenging Corporate Social Responsibility” expands its focus globally, examining CSR in casino gaming in Canada, Macau and Australia as well. According to its description, the book explores “how and why corporations in the casino industry interpret and engage in CSR through community support, environmental issues, labor rights and corporate governance.”
Strauss began her book research in fall 2013 and completed the majority of her writing in summer 2014. While much of her work was penned in her McEwen office, she also wrote while traveling in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Dublin, Ireland.
Although the gaming industry has undergone changes since her dissertation – primarily the increase in the number of casinos across the United States – Strauss has remained connected to the industry, serving as a Research Fellow for the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Gaming Research Institute.
Most secondary research Strauss uncovered focused solely on gambling addictions, but her book doesn’t follow the same path.
“Everyone thinks of gambling problems first when talking about corporate social responsibility and the gambling industry,” she said, noting that the alcohol and tobacco industries face similar public relations questions. “People think casinos should be responsible so that people don’t gamble all their money away. While gambling is their business, I looked at a lot of the paradoxes of the industry and corporate social responsibility.”
The book illuminates CSR’s complexities, contradictions and moral obligations. Case in point: Through interviews with executive directors at Las Vegas nonprofit organizations, Strauss learned that many of the positive community efforts by the casino corporations go unnoticed, partly because the companies don’t communicate them to external audiences.
The author explained that the casino corporations engaging in CSR might have concerns about appearing disingenuous in their motives to help community partners. At the same time, however, failing to communicate the casinos’ efforts might inadvertently decrease community initiatives from other businesses, the author noted.
“There is the question that if you are not telling people you are doing good things, is there a point of doing the good things at all?” Strauss asked. “That’s one of the challenges of the casino industry.”
Strauss believes that her new book and her research into the gambling industry are the perfect intersection of her interest in public relations, CSR, nonprofit organizations, and the history and culture of Las Vegas.
“When I finished this book, I initially thought that it may be time to consider another area to research,” she said. “The gambling industry isn’t a topic that is traditionally associated with academic research. But I am known in communications circles for doing research on Las Vegas and I’m known in gaming circles for doing research in communications, so I have found that overlap where I’m accepted in both fields. I can’t see myself wanting to walk away from that.
“This is a fascinating way to tie in all the things I’m interested in,” Strauss said. “In a way I feel like I hit the jackpot in academia.”