Probing Aspirational Talk in CSR Communication

Lisa Koep, Dublin Institute of Technology

Document Type Theses, Ph.D

Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to Dublin Institute of Technology, 2018.


Located within the constitutive view of CSR communication (Schoeneborn & Trittin, 2013; Schultz, Castelló, & Morsing, 2013), this PhD research investigates aspirational talk (Christensen, Morsing, & Thyssen, 2013). Building on the belief that language is performative (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969), CSR communication that is articulated with regard to aspirations and intentions is not simply descriptive, but is indeed prescriptive and performative, a form of action in that it produces the effect it names (Butler, 1993). Whilst there has been growing interest in the idea of aspirational CSR talk, it is a relatively recent concept. Research to date has been exclusively conceptual (Christensen & Cheney, 2015; Christensen, Morsing, & Thyssen, 2015) and the phenomenon has not been studied in an empirical setting. These conceptual studies urge organisations to embrace discursive opening (Christensen et al., 2015; Deetz, 1992), however, only limited guidance on how this can be best achieved is provided. This research aims to explore this challenging and complex phenomenon both theoretically and empirically to investigate the practical applications and implications of aspirational CSR talk. This thesis aims to reveal the role aspirational talk plays within corporate CSR communication, to explore the discursive management of the challenging interplay between talk and action, and to trace the navigation of aspirational CSR talk in external reporting. Employing an interpretive, discursive approach to gain a thicker, more balanced, description of the reported difficulties of communicating CSR (Morsing, 2005; Waddock & Googins, 2014), the thesis comprises three independent, yet interrelated papers.

Paper 1, Exploring Industry Expert Discourses on Aspirational CSR Communication, analyses dominant discourses surrounding aspirational talk amongst industry experts. This data-driven study highlights tensions as a major theme associated with aspirational CSR communication. Paper 2, When to Walk and When to Talk: The Challenge of Aspirational CSR Communication, builds on the first study, and conceptually explores tension management in aspirational CSR communication through a lens of organisational paradox theory. Paper 3, Tensions in Aspirational CSR Communication – A Longitudinal Investigation of CSR Reporting, empirically explores discursive strategies to navigate the tension between reported talk and reported action in CSR reporting and the underlying sensemaking processes in the setting of one multinational corporation. Theoretically, the thesis contributes to aspirational CSR communication literature by conceptualising aspirational talk as dialectical tension management (Hargrave & Van de Ven, 2017), pinpointing the friction between discursive opening and closing as a major driving force behind the phenomenon’s transformative potential. Further, the research highlights the importance of stakeholder involvement in the reflective practice (Huxham & Beech, 2003) of retrospective and prospective sensemaking processes (Gioa & Mehra, 1996; Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, 2005) when balancing talk and action, allowing for a constitutive exploration of what has been and what can be. Managerially, this thesis underlines the opportunities and challenges of aspirational CSR communication, and draws out possible strategies for discursively managing the talk– action tension.

It concludes with the need to conceive of aspirational talk as a dialectic framing of the talk–action relationship, with its inherent tensional iteration, which is a key insight of this research.