Carroll’s theory of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

As we have seen, CSR has gone through several phases of evolution. There remains little consensus on its precise definition. We can say that all the theoretical constructions developed after the 1950s agree that companies committed to CSR demonstrate corporate motivations that go beyond profit-making and formal legal obligations to involve a wider set of social and ethical concerns. Such principally include protection of the environment, fostering an improved society, supporting economic development, and sustaining good corporate relationships (Dahlsrud., 2008).

The social responsibilities of media companies are arguably more extensive and intensive than for most other industries because media are so central to cultural production and play such an important role in educating citizens and equipping them to participate in the democratic process. Moreover, media firms are able to influence others by shaping public opinion, cultivating social perspectives, and inculcating systemic values (not ignoring the fact that such is contentious, of course, and always fractured). It is clearly true that media industries have, or should have, significant responsibilities.

Carroll’s model synthesizes a range of theories and models summarized in four kinds of social obligations that together constitute CSR:

  • Economic responsibilities are fundamental. Without the foundation of profitability, none of the other responsibilities are feasible or deliverable.
  • Moving up one step, legal responsibilities are the next most important and reflect the way that society’s ethical principles are codified and applied.
  • Ethical or moral responsibilities form a higher set of internalized obligations that encourage workers, managers, and firms to do what is right and avoid doing harm.
  • Philanthropic obligations reside at the apex of Carroll’s pyramid of corporate social responsibility, obliging the corporation to act as a good corporate citizen to promote a generalized social welfare that is crucial to shared quality of life (Carroll, 1991).

These levels are not independent. Carroll sees them as tightly interrelated with a high degree of interdependence.

Carroll’s model is useful because it allows us to map the theories that have been developed to analyse CSR activities in application to media organizations. Media industry theory typically prioritizes the economic dimension of media’s social responsibilities. The second group can be summarized as media ethics theories and corresponds to the second level in Carroll’s hierarchy. The third category can be related to media shareholder theories. Finally, I will argue that the ultimate category—that of the philanthropic or the good corporate citizen—can be at least partially identified in the work of sustainability media theorists like Garriga and Mele (2004). In what follows we treat each level in turn.

The first level of theorization focuses on socially responsible activities as tools for wealth creation. Of course, this is significant for any commercial enterprise, but one needs to understand that even not-for-profit public corporations are nonetheless financial organizations. Lacking the resources to operate effectively inherently means that no other aspect of social responsibility is possible for a media firm. The problem, however, is that too often (and increasingly) this is considered as the only social obligation of media companies. If that were indeed valid, then it would strongly suggest that the management of media firms is no different from any kind of firm.

This approach traces its origins to the work of Milton Friedman and his seminal New York Times article, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits” (Friedman, 1970). For Friedman, the only responsibility for any firm—and thus by extension any media firm—is to maximize shareholder value within the regulatory framework and without violating the most general morals of a (national) society. Apart from achieving the financial targets, media companies have no further obligation other than avoiding outright breeches of ethics that are endemic to an industry in the public’s expectations for its performance. The key task, then, is to secure economic benefits. Also, it is generally accepted that the requirement to maximize shareholder value is not incompatible with taking into account the interests of other media stakeholders. Obviously wealthy media companies have more resources to produce quality and diverse content, although that is not to say they will do that if a less expensive alternative produces better margins.

Therefore, the conclusion drawn from the theory is that the social contribution of media firms is not the issue at all and that media enterprise and entrepreneurial actions are clearly financial in prioritization. This theory is subject to extensive criticism mainly given the increased risk that media face by focusing only in the economic field and the overly restrictive approach it implies for long-term planning. In fact, the “bottom line” for a media firm is strongly determined by the perceptions it has of higher ethical standards, such as integrity in journalism and fairness in the portrayal and representation of diverse peoples. A media firm that ignores the general standards of public expectations for these industries courts disaster, as the News Corp phone-hacking scandal illustrates all too well. But one could make the same claim, if to a lesser degree, of the recent controversies about the salaries and benefits awarded to BBC managers.

Thus, adherents and critics alike generally agreed that it is important to broaden CSR in media beyond the purely economic approach, if for no better reason than the importance this has for marketing and public relations. Working on the assumption that reputation and brand name are important drivers of profitability, media companies feel compelled to forge a more intimate relationship with their audiences. For adherents, therefore, investment in public relations is a key element in bolstering the financial foundations of effective CSR—other aspects bolster the bottom line and are critical to success in that pursuit. The latest development here is about how media achieve measurable social targets and how those targets are related to corporate financial performance (Burchell, 2008; Hawkins, 2006; Schwartz & Salla, 2012).

The second layer of theories terms as media ethics theories highlight the firm’s relationship with society and the influence that each company can have in the political sphere. Because the basic assumption is that growth depends on the enterprise’s harmonious engagement with society, it is necessary to take ethical social requirements into account as a priority. The ethical complexion of CSR encourages greater sensitivity regarding the actions of each media company in relation to the host community. In short, ethical theories acknowledge the relationship between media business and society as a relationship with deeply rooted moral values. Media is not, in short, “business as usual.”

To usefully analyze the ethical dimension of CSR requires understanding the complex, collective character of responsibility. Groups of social actors— shareholders, employees (journalists and content producers), and volunteers— have individual responsibility to act ethically and ensure the socially responsible character of the enterprise. An ethical breach or lapse by an associated individual can have profound consequences for the entire corporation. Regarding the collective aspect, we need to realize that the enterprise as a whole is a social actor in its own right and will be judged for its actions—both good and ill.

In media industries particularly, professional ethics and continually strengthening a moral “center” are core components of CSR because these provide the internal impetus for media companies to go beyond self-interest to meaningfully respond to social as well as economic drivers. The argument I advance is that CSR should be understood not only as a means to improve the functioning of the media business but that managers are wise to remember that in this business, they are responsible on a moral basis.

In this light, the concept of media ethics is an integral part of CSR for these industries and functions as a benchmark to establish the degrees to which media companies fulfil social expectations and, moreover, that financial incentive is a practical reality. The management challenge for media companies is how to achieve the best “ethical fit” between legal macro-ethics, organizational middle ethics, and individual micro-ethics (Appelbaum, Vigneault, Walker, & Shapiro, 2009; Schwartz & Carroll, 2003).