The “Credibility Gap” in CSR Reporting: Analyzing Contents and Stakeholders’ Perceptions of CSR Reports from 11 European Countries
The project analyzes the credibility of CSR reports of European companies according to the “credibility gap” (Dando and Swift 2003) by formalizing and quantifying Habermas’ four validity claims (1985) and applying them to CSR reports and “expert stakeholder’s’” perception thereof.
CSR is framed here as political CSR (Scherer and Palazzo 2007, 2011), where corporations gain moral legitimacy by participating in deliberative discourse (in a Habermasian sense) together with political actors, NGOs, shareholders, and other stakeholders. The moral legitimacy obtained in this discourse depends – also – on credibility, which can be achieved by rational communication, represented by the four Habermasian validity claims truth, sincerity, understandability, and appropriateness.
Currently CSR reporting is also subject to mistrust and criticism from the side of stakeholders, which resulted from incomparable and inconsistent CSR communication by corporations. Stakeholders therefore challenged the moral legitimacy of companies, which led to the “credibility gap” (Dando and Swift 2003). The research project examines this “credibility gap” by analyzing in how far CSR reports are in line with the four Habermasian validity claims of rational communication. To do so the research takes on a two-part approach by analyzing the degree of credibility from the companies’ CSR reports (senders’) as well as the stakeholders’ (receivers’) perception thereof.
In order to quantitatively test the “credibility gap”, the project’s research design is structured in four stages formalized throughout by a set of independent and dependent variables: First, a quantitative content analysis of 320 CSR reports with more than 6500 single articles measures the senders’ fulfillment of the four validity claims. The codebook is developed according to academic literature and structured along the principles and indicators of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Here and in stage two, the four validity claims serve as dependent variables, whereas the use of the GRI guidelines G3.1 and the format of reporting (stand-alone or integrated) are independent variables to test the project’s hypotheses on credibility. For the transition from the quantitative content analysis to the second stage of data collection that measures the perception of stakeholders, a sample selection matrix is chosen. It samples the best- and worst-practice CSR reports for further analysis. In a second stage, the selected CSR reports are then tested as cases in a formalized, multiple case study approach in order to analyze the perceptions of the three “expert stakeholders” (Morsing et al. 2008) financiers, employees, and NGOs regarding their credibility. With this approach, the research produces formalized results on the senders’ side (corporations, data collection I) and on the receivers’ end (“expert” stakeholders, data collection II). A third step compares the results of the first (senders’ valid CSR communication) and second phase (receivers’ valid CSR perception) by a synthesized comparison of the chosen variables and tests for statistical significance. A fourth stage finally feeds the results back into the context of political CSR theory by searching for patterns of validity claim distribution. These patterns of (partly) credible CSR communication will allow challenging e.g. the notion of transparency and deliberative discourse between corporations and stakeholders.
The findings of the project will contribute to the ongoing discussion on credibility in CSR reporting, and provide a state-of-the-art overview of current CSR reporting in Europe. Theoretical contributions are provided through the feedback loop of the study results to the dominant theory of political CSR.
The study will for the first time operationalize the validity claims of rational speech (Habermas 1985). The rigorous application of the case study method in the field of business ethics/CSR promises a novel approach in this research area. Furthermore, conceptual contributions to the dominant theory of political CSR with regard to the notion of maximum transparency can be expected.
Insights are offered to political players, thus providing them with substantiated information on the leitmotivs and credibility of reporting in Europe. The study results will contribute to the discussion on reporting-standardization and harmonization at a European level with a particular focus on Switzerland due to the analysis of Swiss stakeholder’s perception.