Leonard N. Stern School of Business,
New York University, USA
Craig E. Carroll (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin) is a visiting scholar at New York University, and on the adjunct faculty at IE University in Madrid, Spain and Singapore Management University in Singapore. He is the editor of three books, Corporate Reputation and the News Media (Routledge, 2010), the Handbook of Communication and Corporate Reputation (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), and the SAGE Encyclopedia of Corporate Reputation (Sage, in press). He is past chair of the Public Relations division of the International Communication Association.
Title and Abstract:
Transparency Signaling and Disclosure Alignment in the CSR Reporting of Chinese Companies: A Cross-Cultural Extension
This paper focuses on transparency signaling within the corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting of Chinese companies listed within the Global Forbes 500, including companies from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Transparency signaling is a concept that attempts to provide a third-perspective on the observation of transparency in organizational contexts. The first perspective is that of the organizational claim. For organizations to simply claim they are transparent often rings of inauthenticity, creating further cynicism and skepticism among the very stakeholder with whom organizations are attempting to build trust, identification, and support. The second perspective concerns stakeholder perceptions of corporate transparency (e.g., Rawlins, 2009) which is the most frequently studied in public relations and corporate communication. Our dissatisfaction with the second view comes from the concern that a focus on perceptions leaves open the possibility that transparency is nothing more than impression management or the garnering of public opinion. For us, transparency is to important of a concept to be left with only a subjective measure. We advocate a third view—an intersubjective one based on (social) facts that can be independently verified. Our task in the development of this third view then is to construct a measure of transparency that combines real-world indicators that meet stakeholders’ expectations of transparency, matches organizations’ claims of transparency, but also matches the conceptually agreed upon standards set by independent experts, scholars, who study transparency. To put simply, for us “true” transparency requires some form of forensic verification, authentication, and validation—the combination of an objective, real world measure with our third-view, an intersubjective measure. We are not able to accomplish all of this in our paper today. But what we can do is make progress on the third viewpoint: developing a textual representation that an organization is attempting to signal transparency.
In a world of a growing number of organizations reaching into the thousands who are attempting to comply with societal expectations, not all organizations’ communicative efforts can be verified (today) forensically. Our goal, then, is to produce a series of “big data” measures that can serve as “tripping wires” for the independent verification of companies’ transparency efforts. This leads us back to our concept of transparency signaling.
Transparency signaling concerns organizational efforts to demonstrate transparency. Transparency signaling includes positive signals that suggest a move toward transparency. That is, the more organizations engage in a particular behavior, the more transparent they are seen to be. Examples of positive transparency signals include balance (discussing the good and the bad), taking ownership of one’s messages, guidance and direction (specifying who, what, when, where), accuracy, concreteness and timeliness. However, signaling also includes negative signals that need to be mitigated, moderated, or eliminated for transparency to be present. Examples of such negative transparency signals include ambivalence, too much praise, embellishment, or lack of focus.
Corporate transparency is a necessary condition for CSR (Dubbink, Graafland, & Liedekerke, 2008). It ensures that a company’s stakeholders are able to evaluate their CSR information in needs in the context of companies and thereby engage in more constructive interactions with them (Parum, 2005). As such, transparent communication is a communication strategy used by organizations for increasing knowledge and understanding of who they are and what they do, with the objective of gaining their publics’ support. But disclosure alone does not produce transparency. As Rawlins (2009) reminds us, more disclosure can actually defeat the goals of transparency.
This leads to our concept of disclosure alignment, which draws attention to how organizations customize and adapt their language to the reporting requirements specified in reporting guidelines. Where our measures of transparency signaling are guided by theory and previous published literature on transparency, our concept of disclosure alignment requires a new measure be created for each individual set of reporting guidelines. Our focus is on the reporting guidelines of the Global Reporting Initiative.
Our baseline measures and pilot study were published in Carroll and Einwiller (2014) using 36 U.S. companies included in the Global Forbes 2000 from 2011, and is need of cross-cultural extension. Our focus is on cross-cultural difference and raises questions about the degree to which Asian companies may be culturally disadvantaged to comply with the CSR reporting guidelines of such groups as the Global Reporting Initiative.