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RESEARCH BRIEF: When bad things happen, the best and worst CSR performers make the most news

Takeaway: Media are far more likely to report accidents if they occur at companies with a superior CSR record or at firms with substantial past problems. A strong CSR record does not necessarily mediate negative media coverage of adverse events.

This research studies the gatekeeping role of the media in determining which negative corporate events reach a broader audience. Findings show company CSR records influence the probability that the media will pick up a story, but not in the ways one might think.

To identify the effect of CSR programs on both the probability and tone of media coverage, researchers analyzed news reports by 576 U.S. newspapers and wire services of  23,343 oil and chemical spills caused by the 20 largest oil firms from 2001-2007. They analyzed information about the oil spills, newspaper reports covering the spills, and information about firm characteristics, including a firm’s past CSR activities.

To analyze the tone of the reports, researchers performed text analysis of all spill-related articles in the sample. Major findings from the research were:

  • Media are far more likely to report accidents if they occur at a company with a superior CSR record.
  • The tone of coverage is no less negative for organizations with a greener reputation.
  • Rather than acting as an effective form of insurance, results suggest that a strong CSR record might be a liability in media coverage of negative events.
  • Firms with substantial past environmental problems are also more likely to find their corporate failings reported in the news.
  • When editors determine which events deserve the public’s attention, past corporate behavior, as evidenced by news reports, appears to be the more relevant benchmark than corporate communication about environmental policies.

If citing, please refer to the original article: No News is Good News: CSR Strategy and Newspaper Coverage of Negative Firm Events”, Harvard Business School working paper, April 17, 2012, Jiao Luo, Stephan Meier, and Felix Oberholzer-Gee

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