Speaking CSR: How Much Does Language Matter?

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In CSR, language matters. Words – such as “community,” “mission,” or “vision” – can be utilized to highlight acts of sustainability, corporate philanthropy, employee volunteerism and other corporate citizenship efforts. Language can also help companies align their CSR efforts with the core values of their corporate brand, by connecting how you talk about your business with how you talk about your CSR.

We’ve written about language in CSR previously, after analyzing the corporate social responsibility reports of Fortune’s Top 100 companies – we took a closer look at what common CSR terminology truly means. We found that the words companies use around these efforts hold significant meaning based on context, usage, setting, etc. For example, the word “integrity” may be a better fit for a company’s brand and initiative than “virtue.”

But a recent study took the analysis of language in CSR even farther. The study – led by Harvard Business School Associate Professor Christopher Marquis – asked: “would a company’s use of language, particularly by the CEO and other top executives guide its business philosophies and decisions?”

Previous research has shown that companies within some countries – such as Germany and Japan – “are more likely to practice CSR” than companies within other countries, such as France or Russia. Though this may be due to cultural differences, culture is difficult to study because of its subjectivity. As the article points out, “language, on the other hand, is a more objective difference that can be easily measured.

What did they find? To quote the research article:

“Key among their results is [the] idea that it is not the words used in a particular language that matters, but the way that language is constructed. They looked at the constructions used to describe future actions, and found that the more separation placed between present and future events, the less socially responsible a company was. . . . Some languages, such as English, Spanish, Arabic, and Korean, require speakers to use a completely different structure to speak of the future—for example, changing ‘It is raining today’ to ‘It will be raining tomorrow.’ In other languages, such as German, Swedish, Chinese, and Indonesian, speakers use essentially the same structure. Saying ‘It is raining today’ is grammatically equivalent to saying ‘It is raining tomorrow.’”

That is to say, the language – mainly, how sentences are structured – that a company speaks, affects the probability of whether or not a company partakes in CSR.

How language is constructed, of course, isn’t directly modifiable by any single individual or organization. But this doesn’t have to mean that the native tongue of a company determines CSR impact. We outlined the four overarching principles that can guide any company’s efforts to achieve this balance in our whitepaper, The Halo Effect. The right messaging – in any language – can absolutely strengthen a firm’s volunteerism or philanthropic endeavors.

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