An academic conference is good when you get home with more questions than those you had before the conference. When you come back with clear answers, well, it means that the conference was not that good… I am just back from the CSR Communication Conference organized by the University of Amsterdam (Amsterdam School of Communication Research) and VU University Amsterdam with more questions than answers. So, good conference!
The aim of the conference was to bring together business and communication scholars to discuss how to communicate CSR today. What l really liked is that it brought together two types of scholars. On one side, scholars following the idea that communication is mere information. On the other side, scholars believing that communication cannot be reduced to an informational issue where meanings are assumed to already exist, as communication is a process of meaning development between many actors.
My point of view is that nowadays CSR communication managers need to have both approaches. On one side they need to find the right degree of social disclosure to assure that the information they give about their company is authentic and does not trigger skepticism. Said otherwise, managers need to conceptualize CSR communications as something that is “real” and that needs to be improved in its efficiency. However, on the other side, communication managers need also to conceptualize CSR communication as a process of meaning that is construed together with stakeholders. In this case, CSR communication is not a “reality” to communicate; it is enacted in each conversation that stakeholders have about the company (or with the company). Yes, put in this way it sounds theoretical, but in practice this is really simple: the company cannot define “a priori” what CSR is and communicate it to stakeholders. The meaning of CSR is in constant definition.
The work I presented  on behalf of IE School of Communication and other academic institutions collaborating with us – Judge Business School (University of Cambridge)  and IULM Foundation  – basically aims to give the message that both approaches are needed.
I would like to share with you a number of significant sentences I wrote down in my notebook. I like these quotations because in a way they express what is my understanding of CSR Communication:
“Sometimes, as academics, we play chess, but practitioners want to know what the next move is” (Andrew Crane, Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto)
“Companies sometimes find answers to questions that are not asked by stakeholders, while stakeholders’ asked questions remain unanswered” (Bernd Lorenz Walter, BL Walter, Germany)
“Talk is action” (Mette Morsing, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark)
“Communication needs to be seen as a formative element […] Communication has not only the role to externalize. Communication has a formative role in what CSR is” (Andrew Crane, Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto)
“As a consumer I can accept that symbolic communication is done on the product, but I cannot accept that a company says something about CSR that is not 100% true and is just a brand exercise” (Mette Morsing, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark)
“CSR communication can be seen as a political communication instrument to set an agenda” (Friederike Schultz, VU University Amsterdam)
“You cannot control the meaning; you can offer meanings that are negotiated as mixed messages” (Dennis Schoeneborn, University of Zurich)