CSR and the Mediated Emergence of Strategic Ambiguity

Journal of Business Ethics 120 (4):555-569 (2014)

Abstract

We develop a framework for understanding how lack of clarity in business press coverage of corporate social responsibility functions as a mediated and emergent form of strategic ambiguity. Many stakeholders expect CSR to exhibit clarity, consistency, and discursive closure. But stakeholders also expect CSR to conform to varying degrees of both formal and substantive rationality. These diverse expectations conflict with each other and change over time. A content analysis of press coverage in Denmark suggests that the business media reflect and amplify the ambiguity generated by these shifting demands. We propose that this very public lack of discursive closure provides strategic advantages to CSR stakeholders by rendering the concept of CSR adaptable, resilient, and meaningful to diverse interests. From this perspective, strategic ambiguity emerges from a relational and mediated process, not from the direct intentions of individual stakeholders. Our framework suggests that CSR is best understood not as a clear or consistent agenda, but rather as a forum for sensemaking, diversity of opinion, and debate over the conflicting social norms and expectations attached to corporate activity.

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