by Prof. Andrea Catellani, PhD, Ecole de Communication, Louvain-la-Neuve

The discourse on stakeholder dialogue, conversation and mutually beneficial relationships (two-way symmetric communication, following Grunig 2008) is still present in Public Relations and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) communication. Concrete practices of dialogue and interaction with stakeholders can be analysed in many ways in PR and in CSR communication, for instance using a socio-constructivist point of view, or a CCO (Communicative Constitution of Organization) approach. Such approaches can help to understand that even the meaning of CSR (what people are talking about when interacting around CSR politics and decisions) is constructed and negotiated within communicative situations.

In my recent research I have been more interested in how the discourse about external stakeholders is organized: how the “rhetoric” of the interaction between “responsible” businesses and their publics is constructed, and which are the forms of the presence of “the others” inside CSR supports and texts (Amaia Errecart and Andrea Catellani 2017). This kind of research is linked to two different traditions: the discourse analysis school, and the tradition of semiotics. Concerning the second tradition, we argue that the tools of traditional structural analysis can still be useful to understand the possible meanings and the internal “machinery” of visual and verbal supports. But these tools must be integrated into a global hermeneutical vision (inspired among others by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur). In this vision, people interact with each other through the exchange of “signs”, meaningful objects, which in their turn are able to act and influence meaning and behaviours. This kind of semio-hermeneutic approach can complete the analysis of verbal discourse, by integrating visual images as well. It is a deeply qualitative analysis, focused on the analysis of discourses and texts, but open to the observation of situations and practices of production and use of these texts.

The mentioned research was focused on the last editions of CSR reports of three important French businesses in different sectors (oil and gas, building materials, banks). We observed the presence of a sort of “dialogic norm”: “the others” (representatives of associations, local groups, experts) are present in each report, even if in different forms, and sometimes in a passive way. External stakeholders are presented very often as the beneficiaries of the good actions of the businesses; in some cases, they appear as partners of the business in its CSR activity, or even as external authorities (like GRI). In a few cases, the others’ voice is present inside the report. In the case of the Lafarge-Holcim’s report, a selected group of external stakeholders express their opinion on some aspects of the business’ CSR politics: the other becomes a legitimate “enunciator”, with the power to judge and evaluate (even if, of course, this “other” is selected by the business itself). In the BNP Paribas report, the presence of an external voice is limited to the testimony of satisfied partners and clients. Finally, in the case of Total Group, the presence of external stakeholders is really limited (just some reported positive comments). Of course, these three cases cannot allow any form of general statement, but it is interesting to observe and differentiate the roles of others in some examples of “CSR reports”. Images inside the reports support these different strategies, by showing “the other” while he/she expresses him/herself, or as the beneficiary of the actions of the businesses.

There are perhaps other cases in which businesses’ CSR reports include the voices of external stakeholder to a greater extent, and of course there are good examples around the world. But we think that a lot of work has to be done in this area. The representation of stakeholders inside CSR reports (or CSR parts of business reports) will always be based on strategic aims and rhetorical construction, but this does not mean that this presence should not be improved and developed. A greater integration of external voices inside one of the main “genres” of business literature would be a contribution to a more open and interactive business communication, a sign of a deeper engagement in CSR politics, and perhaps also a contribution to the reputation of businesses.

Personally, I don’t think CSR (the voluntary movement of businesses taking responsibility) will be enough to solve the big issues of our contemporary world: democratic, courageous political decisions are urgently needed. But the improvement of good CSR politics, and of strong CSR communication practices and textual forms, can contribute to facilitate our collective efforts.