Barbara Miller Gaither conducts advocacy communications research as Page Legacy Scholar Grant recipient

In collaboration with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor Lucinda Austin and funded by the Arthur W. Page Center, the School of Communications faculty member is studying how and when corporations should engage in social issues.

As a Page Legacy Scholar Grant recipient, Barbara Miller Gaither, professor of strategic communications, is in the midst of spending a year examining ways that companies can serve as social actors on notable social, environmental and political issues while balancing company goals and objectives.

Barbara Miller

In April, Gaither and her research collaborator, Lucinda Austin, were named 2019 Page Legacy Scholars by the Arthur W. Page Center at Pennsylvania State University for their project, “How and when should corporations engage in social issues: Examining corporations’ perceived responsibility for social advocacy.” As part of their yearlong project, the duo received a $6,000 grant to conduct their study, with their results expected by July 2020.

Gaither and Austin, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former Elon University faculty member, divided their research project into two phases. First, they will examine recent cases of high-profile corporate social advocacy through an analysis of social media. The researchers selected a range of cases that vary in terms of how well the issue fits with the company, the company identity as either values-based or results-oriented, and the level of company involvement in the social advocacy.

Their cases for selection include Dick’s Sporting Goods public statements and policy changes on gun sales following the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, as well as Patagonia’s outspoken opposition to President Trump’s order to reduce the size of two national parks.

Secondly, Gaither and Austin will conduct a nationally representative survey to understand when and under what conditions companies are expected to engage in advocacy and how this advocacy will affect public response to the company.

Based on the results from both phases, the researchers plan to provide recommendations for how organizations can take a stand on social issues, while also meeting the demands of corporate stakeholders.

“As companies face increasing pressure to comment on divisive political and social issues, understanding how businesses should do so remains limited,” wrote Gaither and Austin in a Page Center blogpost. “Given this gap in knowledge, our study seeks to better understand this issue and examine under what conditions companies should consider taking social action, and how to best do so.”

Each year, the Page Center invites scholars to propose research ideas that direct the field toward answers to difficult questions affecting the communications industry today. Past topics include “fake news,” digital media, CSR, immigration and sustainability. Since its 2004 founding, the Page Center has funded more than 200 scholars and awarded nearly $900,000 in research funding.

As part of the 2019 Legacy Scholar Grant program, more than 30 scholars were selected from universities in the United States, Australia and Turkey.