A case for Corporate Social Activism: What it is, and how it differs from CSR

by | Nov 7, 2022 | Analysis, Public Relations

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been around as a concept and practice for decades. But over the last few years, it’s been evolving into something more, bigger and potentially riskier—but with great opportunities—for companies and organizations: Corporate Social Activism (CSA). And it has big implications, and increasing responsibilities, for public relations professionals.


First, let’s define terms. What is CSR? Start with what it’s not. It’s not corporate philanthropy. Think of writing a check or becoming an ongoing funding source for a non-profit, charity or even the local Little League baseball team. That’s corporate philanthropy. It’s also not solely Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), although that can be a part of overall CSR efforts. David Chandler at the University of Colorado Denver defines CSR symbiotically as “a responsibility among firms to meet the needs of their stakeholders, broadly defined, and a responsibility among stakeholders to hold firms accountable for their actions.” Central to the concept of CSR is the argument of deciding where and how companies fit into the social fabric.

But to be effective, CSR efforts have to be part of a company’s DNA. They have to be systematic, sustaining, supported by senior management, and aligned with a company’s values.

Some companies have been at the forefront of CSR efforts for many years, such as Patagonia, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Mars Candy Co. and Marks & Spencer. In fact, Patagonia shook up the business world in September when Yvon Chouinard and his family publicly announced they would transfer their company ownership, worth about $3 billion, to a specially designed trust and nonprofit organization to ensure all of the company’s profits—about $100 million a year—are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the world.

Using the framework of institutional theory, CSA on the other hand, can be viewed as a company’s willingness to take a stance on social, political, environmental and economic issues to create societal change by influencing the attitudes and behaviors of actors in its environment. The evolution of CSA has been accelerated during the past few years by increased visibility of social justice movements including #MeToo and most prominently, the murder of George Floyd, which gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Stop Asian Hate, the Supreme Court decision this past summer overturning Roe vs. Wade, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine added even more momentum to CSA pressures. In sum, when’s there’s energy around an issue, that means change is starting to happen and a bigger conversation is taking place.

This conversation presents both opportunities and risks to companies. More and more people are looking to companies help address societal issues. A recent study by SproutSocial revealed 70 percent of consumers want companies to take a stand on social issues. The number rises to 75 percent for Gen Z and 80 percent for Millienials. And 66 percent of employees want their CEO to take a stance on controversial issues. A study entitled FOCUS Black: State of Consumer Engagement 2022 found 58 percent of Black consumers have taken positive or negative actions as a result of a company’s alignment on sociopolitical issues. So while CSA isn’t required, it is a growing factor in people’s decision making, from where to shop to where to work.

The risk of course, is speaking out on controversial issues. Taking a side can put a company’s bottom line at risk if stakeholders feel taking a public stand on an issue is outside the firm’s scope or don’t agree with the stance. And behaviors must match the rhetoric or there’s a risk to image, reputation and credibility. And stakeholders have a responsibility too: if they want a different behavior from a firm, then they must be willing to support it, whether it’s through paying higher prices, higher employee recruitment and retention, employee satisfaction, supporting legislation, etc.

Impact on PR

What do these developments mean for the PR profession? I believe this gives practitioners a golden opportunity to be the executive primarily responsible for corporate activism. They must constantly be performing and analyzing environmental scans to assess what’s going on in and around the environment their organization operate in.

I also argue both CSR and CSA must be strategic, not tactical. To do both right, one must understand the interdependent relationships among a company, its strategy, resources and stakeholders that define its environment. Plus, an understanding of the constraints on it to act.

Using an issues-oriented approach, practitioners can examine their own CSA strategy and develop a systematic approach to activism. Understanding why progress on an issue is lacking, and how the company can best help overcome barriers is key.

I think within five years from now, CSA:

  • Won’t be a siloed issue; it’ll be cross-functional.
  • Will be even more important to businesses; a willingness to speak out on issues can accelerate what you’re doing internally and externally.
  • Will have more accountability to commitments companies make; instead of worrying about “getting involved,” you could lose customers, employees and other stakeholders because you didn’t.
  • Will result in more measuring of progress on issues.
  • Will result in more organizations following the roadmap.

Taken collectively, this environment plays right into the PR function and can elevate the profession in a positive way. PR is built to be nimble and cross-functional, unlike other parts of organizations. We should take advantage of these opportunities.

Gregg C. Feistman
Gregg C. Feistman is Assistant Chair for Public Relations at Temple University.


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