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International Journal of Strategic Communication
ISSN: 1553-118X (Print) 1553-1198 (Online) Journal homepage:
Exploring Effects of CSR Initiatives in Strategic
Postcrisis Communication Among Millennials in
China and South Korea
Hyun Jee Oh, Regina Chen & Chun-ju Flora Hung-Baesecke
To cite this article: Hyun Jee Oh, Regina Chen & Chun-ju Flora Hung-Baesecke (2017):
Exploring Effects of CSR Initiatives in Strategic Postcrisis Communication Among Millennials
in China and South Korea, International Journal of Strategic Communication, DOI:
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Published online: 19 Sep 2017.
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Date: 27 October 2017, At: 19:53
Exploring Effects of CSR Initiatives in Strategic Postcrisis
Communication Among Millennials in China and South Korea
Hyun Jee Oh
, Regina Chen
, and Chun-ju Flora Hung-Baesecke
Hong Kong Baptist University, Kowloon, Hong Kong; bMassey University, North Shore, New Zealand
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This study explored what types of postcrisis CSR activities can make corporate crisis management effective and why. Eighty-one in-depth interviews
with Chinese and South Korean millennials showed that they perceived
postcrisis CSR positively even when they perceived an underlying selfserving motive. The interview data also revealed that postcrisis CSR initiatives relevant to the company’s business (CSR fit) and to the crisis at hand
were more effective in both countries than the other CSR initiatives.
Millennials in both countries valued CSR’s impact (benefiting the society
as a whole), continuity (being long-term planned and sustainable), uniqueness (with few precedents), and transparency (fully disclosing detailed
information) when evaluating various postcrisis CSR initiatives.
Controllability (CSR being under full control of a company) was a significant
criterion for South Korean millennials only. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.
Existing studies have demonstrated the effect of precrisis CSR activities on crisis management,
showing that the previous good work of an organization, including its CSR history, can counteract
negative consequences from a crisis. Precrisis CSR activities encourage stakeholders to support the
organization during and/or after a crisis and help the crisis-afflicted organization regain its reputation (Assiouras, Ozgen, & Skourtis, 2013; Kim & Yang, 2009; Klein & Dawar, 2004; Schnietz &
Epstein, 2005; Vanhamme & Grobben, 2009) – a situation Coombs and Holladay (2006) described as
the “Halo effect.”
Proactive and reactive CSR literature (Becker-Olsen, Cudmore, & Hill, 2006; Groza,
Pronschinske, & Walker, 2011; Lee, Park, Moon, Yang, & Kim, 2009; Ricks, 2005) has shown that,
compared to voluntary CSR activities (proactive CSR), CSR activities resulting from external
pressure (reactive CSR) are perceived as less genuine because people are more suspicious of the
motives. However, existing empirical evidence of how people interpret and react to proactive and
reactive CSR initiatives is inadequate to draw conclusions that the effect of postcrisis CSR is
insignificant just because people tend to perceive the reactive CSR’s extrinsic motive. As Kim and
Choi (2017) argued, the function of postcrisis CSR initiatives as a corporate crisis strategy remains
largely unexamined, and only a handful of reactive CSR studies have explored crisis situations
(Groza et al., 2011; Ricks, 2005), limited in scope to internal discrimination and environmental
Therefore, instead of comparing proactive and reactive CSR, this study focuses on reactive CSR to
explore how stakeholders perceive different postcrisis CSR initiatives and what can make the CSR
efforts more effective despite the perception of self-serving motives. Once a crisis happens,
Department of Communication Studies, School of Communication, Hong
Kong Baptist University, 5 Hereford Road, Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong.
© 2017 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
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companies will face enormous pressure to correct the situation and to be better corporate citizens.
Reactive CSR is commonly used by companies for this reason (Lee et al., 2009; Wagner, Lutz, &
Weitz, 2009). In addition, as Kim and Lee (2012) demonstrated, people can have complex processes
of motive attribution, perceiving both self-serving and altruistic motives behind either proactive or
reactive CSR situations.
Specifically, this study contributes to the understanding of postcrisis CSR as a corporate crisis
strategy, following the corporate apology and corrective action for a crisis, to gain public forgiveness
among the millennial generation in China and South Korea using a crisis case of product harm.
Millennials understand the importance of being socially, culturally, and environmentally conscious
(Sheahan, 2005; Smith & Brower, 2012; Walker, 2007) and, therefore, are CSR advocates (Howe &
Strauss, 2000; Lancaster & Stillman, 2002). The results of this study advance the knowledge of CSR
and crisis management targeting millennials and provide practical insights into strategic communication in managing crisis.
Literature review
CSR and crisis
Numerous studies have shown that being a good corporate citizen reaps dividends. Companies
exercising CSR can benefit from superior reputation, customer evaluation of the company and its
products, customer loyalty toward the company, financial performance, organizational identity, and
employee engagement (see Aguinis & Glavas, 2012a, for a list of studies with different CSR outcomes).
Several studies have discussed the effect of CSR activities on crisis management; many of these
concluded that the existence of CSR activities prior to a crisis helps the organization regain its
reputation and encourages stakeholders to support the organization even during the crisis (Assiouras
et al., 2013; Kim & Yang, 2009; Klein & Dawar, 2004; Schnietz & Epstein, 2005; Vanhamme &
Grobben, 2009). The studies advised the use of CSR messages as a reminding strategy (Coombs,
2012) after a crisis situation calms down and when it is time to rebuild the organization’s reputation.
As these studies suggest, previous good work of an organization, including CSR history, can
counteract negative consequences from a crisis. CSR history can help sustain stock market value
(Schnietz & Epstein, 2005), and a company with a long CSR history may be viewed less skeptically by
consumers (Vanhamme & Grobben, 2009). Kim and Yang (2009) specifically showed that when a
company uses corrective action as its crisis response strategy, good CSR history can reduce perceived
crisis responsibility.
Proactive and reactive CSR
Proactive CSR refers to CSR activities that are voluntary, and “reactive” CSR refers to CSR activities
that are prompted by negative events or pressure from nongovernment organizations (NGOs).
According to Ricks (2005), proactive CSR is to “increase visibility or enhance corporate image and
is not in response to an event that pressures the company to respond” (p.122). Becker-Olsen et al.
(2006) defined reactive CSR as a situation where “firms react to events that prompt them to behave
in a socially responsive manner” (p. 50). They argued that under a reactive CSR situation, the timing
of the CSR initiatives functions as an informational cue, and people would become more convinced
of the self-serving motive behind the CSR efforts and would look for more information. The results
showed that reactive CSR initiatives resulted in a more critical analysis by consumers compared to
proactive CSR initiatives. This was also supported by Lee and others (2009) who found that
participants showed negative attitudes once they thought of a particular corporate philanthropy as
reactive. Groza et al. (2011) further explicated the process of motive attribution, showing that
proactive CSR initiative resulted in more values-driven (altruistic) attributions. People are more
likely to attribute altruistic motives to CSR activities when the activities are proactive than when they
are reactive.
Instead of comparing proactive and reactive CSR, this study focused on reactive CSR to explore
how stakeholders perceive different postcrisis CSR initiatives and what can make the CSR efforts
more effective despite motives perceived as self-serving. Although proactive CSR is perceived as
better than reactive CSR (Becker-Olsen et al., 2006; Groza et al., 2011; Lee et al., 2009; Ricks, 2005),
there should be variations within different postcrisis CSR initiatives.
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CSR fit
CSR fit is about whether a company’s CSR initiatives are “closely related to its main business
activities” (Aksak, Ferguson, & Duman, 2016, p.80). Here, the business activities include its brand
image, products, target market, mission, and/or values (Becker-Olsen et al., 2006). CSR fit has been
explored as a factor that influences overall attitude toward CSR activities that would lead to
supportive behavior toward the company. Based on associative network theory, Becker-Olsen and
others (2006) argued that perceived relatedness between a company’s characteristics and its CSR
initiatives would influence whether or not stakeholders regard the initiatives as appropriate. Their
study showed that low-fit CSR initiatives led to more thoughts in general among stakeholders and
the thoughts were less favorable toward the company. In addition, low-fit CSR initiatives activated
more persuasion awareness and consequently discouraged purchase intention.
Perceived fit has been widely discussed in cause-related marketing literature (Barone, Norman, &
Miyazaki, 2007; Chen, Su, & He, 2014; Elving, 2013; Menon & Kahn, 2003; Nan & Heo, 2007; Samu
& Wymer, 2009). In these studies, the fit was seen as congruence between a cause and a brand, and
the congruence led to positive outcomes such as reduced skepticism (Elving, 2013), positive product
ratings (Menon & Kahn, 2003), and better company evaluation (Chen et al., 2014). Additionally,
Ham and Han (2013) showed that perceived fit between a hotel’s core business and its green
practices positively affected evaluation of the hotel’s green practices that led to higher visit and wordof-mouth intentions.
CSR fit is known as a cue that encourages stakeholders to perceive altruistic motive of the CSR
activities, as noted by Rifon, Choi, Trimble, and Li (2004). According to these authors, if there is low
fit between the company and its CSR activities, stakeholders will become more suspicious of its good
act and go through a more elaborated thought process, which leads to greater resistance toward the
positive CSR message.
However, findings have not all been consistent. Some studies showed that high CSR fit can
activate skepticism of stakeholders by leading them to think about possible financial gain of the
company from its CSR activities (Ellen, Mohr, & Webb, 2000; Forehand & Grier, 2003; Yoon,
Gurhan-Canli, & Schwarz, 2006). Lee, Park, and Pae (2011) added that the fit is not only between
CSR and a company’s core business but also a company’s image, and only the latter affected
consumer perception toward the CSR activities positively. Lee, Park, Rapert, and Newman (2012)
suggested that a fit between CSR activities and consumer’s values and lifestyles is as important as a fit
between a company and its CSR. Their results showed that once stakeholders perceive congruency
between their values and lifestyles and CSR activities, they develop a more favorable attitude toward
the activities.
Although CSR fit has been explored in many contexts, it has not been discussed in the crisis
context. Aksak et al. (2016) posited that high-fit CSR can possibly backfire when the company has a
negative reputation, but this assumption was not investigated specifically for a crisis situation. This
study will provide an insight into how millennials perceive CSR fit and how the fit functions in their
evaluation of CSR and overall crisis management.
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CSR and millennials
Millennials (often referred to as Generation Y or Echo Boomers) are defined as people born between
1980 and 2000 (Howe & Strauss, 2000). They are well-educated, entrepreneurial (Martin, 2005),
technologically savvy (Murdough, 2016), and have distinctive perspectives (Weiss, 2003) and values
(Boyd, 2010) when making decisions. The millennial generation is becoming the major demographic
group in product consumption and the workforce and its members are trendsetters for other
generations (Schawbel, 2015) who can ultimately have a significant influence on corporate performance. Thus, they have attracted intensive scrutiny in CSR research as consumers (e.g, Bucic, Harris,
& Arli, 2012; Lu, Bock, & Joseph, 2013; Schmeltz, 2012; Smith, 2014) or as employees or future
managers (e.g., Catano & Morrow, 2016; Culiberg & Mihelič, 2016; Ibrahim, Howard, & Angelidis,
2008; McGlone, Spain, & McGlone, 2011).
Existing research has suggested that millennials perceive companies without any CSR performance provide no value to society at large (Barrett, 2009) and thus, support CSR by action (Cone
Communications, 2015; Howe & Strauss, 2000; Lancaster & Stillman, 2002). Millennial business
students (future managers) show more concern for ethical and discretionary CSR than current
business managers do (Ibrahim et al., 2008). The 2015 Cone Communications Millennial CSR Global
Study reported that 90% of the surveyed millennials would switch to a brand associated with a cause,
87% would purchase a product with a social or environmental benefit, 70% would pay more for such
a product, 82% would tell friends and family about CSR efforts, and 62% would take a pay cut to
work for a responsible corporation.
Millennials in different nations place different weight on various dimensions of CSR. Schmeltz’s
(2012) study showed that most Danish millennial consumers rated employee-related CSR as most
important, followed by environment-related CSR initiatives and local community-related CSR
initiatives. Conversely, Wang and Juslin (2011) found that Chinese millennials had a more positive
opinion of the Chinese corporation’s CSR performance targeting economic and social sustainability
than that targeting environmental sustainability. In addition, Wong, Long, and Elankumaran (2010)
found that Chinese millennials (i.e., business students) considered the economic aspect of CSR as
more important than did their counterparts in the United States and India who weighted noneconomic aspects of CSR as more significant. U.S. millennials viewed legal obligations as the top
priority for CSR initiatives, while Indian millennials considered philanthropy as the most essential.
South Koreans, aged 15–18 (a subgroup of millennials), would form a more positive attitude toward
the company when it implements a career-related CSR program than an environment- or wellnessrelated CSR program (Lim, Kang, & Kim, 2017).
This study aimed to empirically examine the millennial public’s reactions to CSR as a crisis
response strategy in the postcrisis context. Based on the above literature review, it asked two research
questions: how do Chinese and Korean millennials perceive postcrisis CSR initiatives and on what
evaluation criteria?
Qualitative in-depth interviews were conducted by phone targeting millennials born between 1980 and
2000 (Howe & Strauss, 2000) to address the research questions. Interviews were conducted with 40
mainland Chinese millennials living in China or Hong Kong and 41 Korean millennials living in South
Korea, using nonprobability sampling. The length of interviews ranged from 30 minutes to an hour. To
recruit Chinese interviewees, invitations were first sent to mainland Chinese students and alumni of the
researchers’ department at a public university in Hong Kong. To recruit Korean interviewees, the
recruitment announcement was posted on different Korean university students’ Facebook groups. The
participants responded voluntarily and referred other participants after they finished the interviews.
Among the Chinese participants, 24 (60%) were female, 21 (51.5%) were students and 19 (48.5%) were
full-time employees. Similarly, 24 (58.5%) of the Korean participants were female, 21 (51.2%) were
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students, 18 (43.9%) were full-time employees and two were new graduates. The average age of the
Chinese participants was 21.3 years and that of the Korean participants was 24.8 years.
Millennials in China and South Korea were chosen in this research for the following reasons.
First, even though businesses in both countries sustain close relationships with the government
that exert a great influence on the nation’s economic development, the latest Edelman Trust
Barometer (Edelman, 2017) revealed that public trust in business is much higher in China (67
out of 100 points) than in South Korea (38 points). These different perceptions of business
might affect how millennials react to CSR initiatives in the postcrisis stage. Secondly, even
though millennials in both countries share a cultural root (i.e., collectivism and Confucianism),
millennials in South Korea are much more pessimistic about the future than those in China
because they have higher youth unemployment and poverty and a lower birth rate (Chong, 2016;
Deloitte, 2017). Also, the South Korean millennials perceived a lower commitment among
business leaders to help improve society than their Chinese counterparts. Comparing mainland
Chinese and South Korean millennials in the study advances our understanding of CSR and
crisis management targeting millennials.
The interview protocol comprised four sets of semi-structured questions: (1) demographics, (2)
knowledge about CSR, (3) CSR initiatives to be taken in the postcrisis stage of a given food safety
crisis scenario, and (4) perceived effect of seven postcrisis CSR initiatives on individuals’ acceptance
of the organization’s apology for the crisis scenario. The seven postcrisis CSR initiatives (see Table 1)
were adapted from Hou and Reber (2011) and Aliawadi, Neslin, Luan and Taylor (2014), covering
three categories—environmental sustainability, community relations and employee relations—with
low or high relevancy to business operation of the organization responsible for the crisis (CSR fit).
The design of the seven initiatives was developed based on common CSR practices revealed by news
reports and available CSR reports in relation to a corporation in the food industry. To access
perceived post-CSR effects, the participants first learned about a food crisis scenario that concerned
organic drinks containing a volatile human pathogen resulting in product recall and official
corporate apology. They were then asked to evaluate the effect of the seven CSR initiatives the
company would undertake in the postcrisis stage.
Table 1. CSR Type examples provided
CSR Type
High (Packaging for carbon
Environment emissions reduction)
Low (Recycling bin campaign)
CSR Initiative
1.The company pledged to reduce carbon emissions by implementing
biodegradable packaging design and reduction of unnecessary packaging.
2. The company initiated a Public Space Recycling Bin campaign. The
company will provide recycling bins to colleges and universities, local
governments, and nonprofit organizations so that they can be installed and
recyclable materials can be collected.
High (NGO-partnership:
3. Collaborating with local NGOs, the company initiated an educational
Educational program on healthy program for the local community. Different seminars will be held to educate
on how to improve food choices and habits.
High (Food banks donation)
4. The company became a supporter of local food bank partners by donating
more than $400,000. The donation will be used to help fund programs that
will deliver food to locals who need it most.
Low (Donation to strengthen local 5. To strengthen local vocational education, the company donated money
vocational education)
for developing a school credentialing system in partnership with local
government and local educational institutions.
High (Employee training)
6. The company initiated training and career development programs to
advance employees’ skills enhancement, professional development,
workplace health and safety, and food health and safety, so that the
employees work better and produce safe and high quality products.
Low (Gender equality)
7. Concerned with gender pay gap, the company implemented a transparent
salary policy to promote equal pay for equal work.
A food crisis was selected for study because food crises are common events in China and South
Korea and any food-related crisis brings imminent risk to health, and health is something that every
person can relate to, regardless of the severity of a crisis. Therefore, the topic we chose for the
interview directly attracts the layperson’s interest, and the participants could relate to and answer the
questions we asked.
Interviews were audiotaped and transcribed for data analysis by two of the researchers (the
Chinese researcher coded the China data while the Korean researcher coded the Korea data). Data
were analyzed with a thematic approach in which emerging themes from the data were identified to
reveal the participants’ experiences and ideas about the subject of inquiry (Bradley, Curry, & Devers,
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General perception on postcrisis CSR
Many Chinese participants said that postcrisis CSR was not expected even though they would
appreciate the effort. When asked what CSR initiatives the participants would recommend to the
corporation in the given scenario, 14 participants did not propose any postcrisis CSR initiatives other
than crisis-management action including apologizing, providing medical treatment and compensation, investigating the crisis cause and taking corrective action to prevent a similar crisis from
happening in the future, being honest, and making relevant information transparent and accessible
to the public. As one participant working in the media in Guangzhou explained:
The company is suggested not to do CSR [before the crisis is fully resolved] as consumers would think the
company wants to cover the previous accident. The company should investigate the reason for the crisis and
identify which production step was involved in the problem. Then the company should make improvements in
the production to cater for the identified problem and ensure a similar problem would not happen again. Also,
the company should improve the examination equipment to increase the quality assurance standard to higher
than the market requirement, so as to convince consumers that the product quality is improved.
Most of the Korean participants thought that willingness to do something in addition to apologizing
was more than enough. They also indicated that doing CSR was far better than doing nothing, and
knowing that the company in crisis was trying to do something for society would make them
appreciate the intention and effort because they considered the company was going beyond what was
generally expected. Some of them said that they would accept the apology and forgive the company
after seeing its postcrisis CSR efforts.
Observing CSR in addition to the apology would make me moved. I know that they are trying hard to make it
up, so I would consider their CSR efforts very positively. Look at Volkswagen Korea or Oxy Reckitt Benckiser
Korea. Apparently they did something wrong but you don’t hear any proper apology or recall. If the company
apologizes, recalls properly, and does CSR? I would thank them.
Among the recommended postcrisis CSR initiatives, most participants suggested that the corporation should work on improving its food product quality in the following ways: (1) re-inspect the
ingredients of its products other than the one in question or new products using its own laboratory
or external certified laboratories, (2) enhance its food quality standards and measures, (3) make
donations to food safety testing laboratories or to the industry used for food safety, (4) take a
leadership role in advancing the industry-wide food safety standards and monitoring and testing
procedures, (5) organize campaigns or competitions to strengthen the knowledge and practice of
food safety among manufacturers and the general public, (6) involve the public to monitor and
improve the company’s food manufacturing, packaging and distribution process, and (7) sponsor
research on Bacillus cereus, the bacterium that caused the food crisis.
Besides sustaining food safety, other proposed CSR initiatives included: free body check-up,
general donations or charitable activities, charitable food donations (e.g., food donations to victims
of national disasters), making the sourcing of raw materials and food production transparent,
providing product discounts or free products to compensate for the damage caused by the company
to the public, and offering new job positions to people in the community.
Although the Korean participants viewed postcrisis CSR positively, some indicated that two CSR
types should be used cautiously: post-CSR programs that require the public’s effort and those in
partnership with the government. Launching a recycling campaign, for example, was not appropriate
because the company in crisis was asking for the public’s cooperation, which is likely to irritate the
public. As a Korean millennial participant explained,
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If the company wants to promote recycling among people as its CSR, this means that it is asking for our
cooperation with what they are trying to do. It feels like they are giving the burden of rebuilding the image to
us. We are not the one that caused the crisis!
Another type of postcrisis CSR that merits caution for targeting Korean millennials is the one that
involves partnership with the government. The Korean participants were skeptical about this type of
postcrisis CSR, saying that when the government gets financial support from a for-profit business,
the money is often not efficiently spent and managed: “Whenever a company works with the
government for CSR, I consider it as mere promotional work to show that they’re doing something.”
In general, the participants in both countries emphasized that, before initiating CSR activities, a
full apology with a detailed plan for the recall should be given. CSR effort would be accepted only if
the crisis is managed well. And most importantly, they emphasized that the company needed to
absolutely make sure that the same crisis would not happen again.
CSR fit and crisis-relevant CSR
As the interview data revealed (see Table 2), both Chinese and Korean participants in general
evaluated postcrisis CSR initiatives of high relevance to the corporation as more effective than
those of low relevance in generating the millennial public’s forgiveness to the crisis-afflicted
corporation. In general, the participants thought that CSR should be relevant to the business in
which the company is involved. If the company sells food products, then food-related CSR activities
work better because of the company’s expertise. Therefore, they gave a low rating to CSR examples
that were unrelated to the company’s business. In the examples provided in the interview, in each
CSR type the participants preferred the ones with high company business relevancy as this statement
shows: “Installing recycle bins or changing its package for lowering carbon emissions sounds
irrelevant to what the company does for business.” The top three preferred CSR initiatives among
Korean millennials all had high CSR fit. For the Chinese participants, two of the top three preferred
CSR initiatives had high CSR fit. One had low CSR fit (Example 5) and will be discussed further in a
later part of the results section.
In terms of crisis-relevancy, the participants indicated that they would consider CSR that is
irrelevant to the crisis as hypocritical and would interpret it as intended to cover up the crisis. As one
Korean participant said, “The CSR topic should be relevant to the crisis. The company could donate
some money to research labs at universities so that they can develop a better product quality
screening system. Then this donation would become crisis-relevant.”
Table 2. Best CSR
Rank 1
Example 6 (18)
Example 6 (19)
Rank 2
Example 3 (14)
Example 4 (15)
Rank 3
Example 5 (6)
Example 1 (12)
Rank 4
Example 4 (5)
Example 3 (8)
Rank 5
Example 2 (2)
Example 2 (4)
Rank 6
Example 1 (1)
Example 7 (3)
Rank 7
Example 7 (0)
Example 5 (1)
Note. Numbers in parentheses represent the number of interviewees who perceived each example as most preferred.
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The top three CSR initiatives chosen by Chinese and Korean participants are listed below to explain
how fit and crisis relevancy work in the millennials’ post-CSR evaluation process. Major differences in
the two millennial groups in terms of their CSR preferences are also elaborated in this section.
Employee training
Employee training that had high CSR fit was rated the most effective post-CSR initiative in forgiving
a crisis-afflicted corporation by both Chinese and Korean participants. They said “employees directly
affect product quality and safety,” “such CSR helps to prevent a similar crisis happening again in
future by enhancing employee knowledge and skills,” and “providing better treatments for employee
health and training on food safety and health is aligned with the corporation’s food quality
commitment to consumers.”
The participants also said that it makes more sense for the company to undertake employee
training as CSR in the crisis situation because its internal production system probably caused the
crisis (food-harm crisis). By focusing on the issue internally and making sure that the same thing will
not happen again, the company would give millennials the perception that it is tackling the problem
on a fundamental level. The participants considered employee training as the right CSR approach
after crisis because it is aimed at preventing the same crisis from happening again. After an apology,
companies usually make promises, and if they announce that they will train their staff better to
ensure product quality, people can place more faith in the promise.
Some Korean participants also mentioned the importance of gaining internal support in a time of
crisis. They said providing training programs to the employees promptly after the crisis would give a
good opportunity for the company to inform employees about what went wrong and what needs to
be done. The informed employees could then talk to others about the crisis in a more positive light.
Educational programs with high and low CSR fit
An educational program on healthy eating targeting the local community that had high CSR fit was
evaluated differently between Chinese and Korean participants, although both ranked it high (Table 2).
Chinese participants ranked it as the second-most effective because it “directly benefits a larger number
of people (i.e., people in the community) than employee training could do.” However, even though this
initiative has high fit, some Chinese participants argued that it had a less direct effect on preventing the
crisis from happening again than employee training on food safety and health.
For Korean participants, providing educational seminars to the local community about food
choices and habits was dull and impractical although the seminars had a high CSR fit. They said that
the educational program would not be interesting because you can readily gain the related information (how to eat well) from the Internet. They said that only retired elderly people and housewives
would attend, indicating the limited number of beneficiaries of the CSR effort saying “If you don’t
attend the event, you don’t get any benefit. I think that this type of event has very limited reach.”
Another education-related program, donating for local vocational education, despite its low CSR
fit was ranked as the third-most effective CSR among the Chinese participants because they believed
that “education is an essential means to improve the professionalism and development of industries
that benefit China as a whole;” “donations on education can always cultivate a company’s reputation;” or “this initiative is novel and the competitors or other brands are not yet doing anything
similar.” It should also be noted that two Chinese participants pointed out that this CSR would be
most effective if the vocational education system is for the food industry. The initiative was rated as
the least preferred one by Korean participants due to its low CSR fit.
Donation to food Banks
Donation to food banks was positively evaluated as a postcrisis CSR effort by both Chinese and
Korean participants, mainly because of its reach and visibility. A donation was considered the most
visible activity because it tends to reach a wider audience, so it was considered effective in recovering
the company’s reputation as the following quotation from Korean participant shows.
The fact that the company donated will be circulated in the media and the information can reach a large
number of people. If it continues its donations year after year, it can help the company to build a good
reputation in the long run.
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The participants accepted CSR in the form of donation, in spite of its prevalence, because it was
targeting needy people. They said that donating money targeting low-income people makes sense
because “for soymilk products, if there’s something wrong with the products, low-income people
suffer the most because they may not be able to see doctors due to financial constraints.”
Although the participants thought that donation was an effective CSR after a crisis, some Korean
participants saw it as a passive response and they doubted its continuity. In either case – seeing it as
passive or doubting its continuity—it would lead them to perceive the donation as insincere. The
participants thought that the company wanted to cover up its crisis by simply donating a large sum
of money without investing its time and energy.
Donation has high impact but it is viewed as passive. I want companies to be involved in CSR more actively.
Maybe instead of a simple donation to a food bank, the company can participate in collecting food and
distributing it. The company can work with schools and support children in need.
Packaging for carbon emissions reduction
Although not always evaluated positively, especially due to their lack of uniqueness, environmental
protection efforts such as implementing biodegradable packaging designs and reducing unnecessary
packaging were positively evaluated by at least one-third of the Korean participants. However, 34 of
the 40 Chinese participants saw it as irrelevant to the crisis and felt that it would not alleviate the
crisis damage nor prevent similar crises from happening in future. Thus, performing such initiatives
was perceived as a “cover-up,” “an image repair,” or “an act to shift the attention on the corporate
crisis to another issue,” rather than being responsible to those affected by the crisis or to society as a
whole. Some participants even perceived such CSR initiatives as an indicator of the company’s
unwillingness or inability to deal with the crisis. So this CSR appealed to Korean participants only.
They thought that the results of the CSR could be quantifiable and saw the efforts as in pursuit of
becoming a responsible global citizen. They believed that the company did something tangible
because “the company can show what kinds of changes were made to the packaging design and
what resulted from it in terms of carbon emission.” They said that they would evaluate the CSR
initiative positively because “carbon emission is such a global issue.”
Impact, continuity, uniqueness, transparency, and controllability
While observing reactions from Chinese and Korean millennials toward CSR initiatives that are
varied in their CSR fit and crisis relevancy, five criteria that affected how the participants perceived
postcrisis CSR emerged: impact, continuity, uniqueness, transparency, and controllability. The first
four were mentioned by both Chinese and Korean millennials, while the final one was applied
among the Koreans only.
The impact of CSR was a generally applied criterion used by the participants to evaluate the altruistic
motive and effectiveness of postcrisis CSR because the majority of the participants agreed that the
ultimate value of CSR activities should be benefits to the society as a whole. The participants in both
countries examined impact in terms of the number of beneficiaries and the magnitude of the benefit.
They preferred a postcrisis CSR with measurable outcomes.
Although employee training was ranked top in terms of preferred CSR, some participants did not
support the idea of internally oriented CSR, stating, “Employee training CSR has an indirect impact
on consumers. However, since the company is having a crisis, CSR initiative directly benefiting to
consumers should be performed.” Their main concern was its reach. They thought CSR after a crisis
should directly target the external public because rebuilding trust should have the utmost priority.
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The criterion of continuity was repeatedly stressed. Continuity is about being able to sustain the CSR
activities and to produce a long-term effect. The participants argued CSR efforts that accompany
long-term plans are the best because continuous CSR can build public trust or make a real impact on
society, and “one-time event CSR cannot contribute to rebuilding the company’s reputation.” Some
participants stated that donations usually create only a short-time effect even though they might
benefit a large group of people. Therefore, they argued that making consistent annual donations is
better than giving a huge sum of money as a one-time donation, because “CSR activities that can be
sustained and repeated are the best.”
When evaluating different types of CSR after crisis, the participants said they wanted something
different. Some Chinese participants were in favor of corporate donations for providing food to the
poor in the local community and establishing a vocational certification system because these
initiatives were new to them. Similarly, when Korean participants heard about employee training
as a possible CSR, some indicated they were not familiar with the approach and they would consider
their unfamiliarity as a good sign. Utilizing existing CSR activities that other companies were already
doing did not appeal to the millennials. The participants in both countries who expressed negative
attitudes toward donations all pointed out the lack of uniqueness, saying that donation is what
everybody else is doing, including individuals such as celebrities. More importantly, widely used CSR
led to skepticism in some cases.
Eco-friendly packaging is such a frequently used form of CSR. We’re so immune to this type of CSR. And
whenever they claim that they do something that can possibly reduce the carbon emission, I doubt it. I think
they just claim it even if what they’re doing has almost nothing to do with environmental protection.
Transparency was another important criterion in evaluating CSR efforts. It was apparent that the
participants wanted companies to provide detailed information, especially for postcrisis CSR that is
reactive in nature. When announcing CSR activities, companies need to specify who they are
targeting, comprehensive activity details, and expected outcomes and benefits. For example, for
carbon emission reduction, the company needs to specify “how much emission it is talking about.”
In the case of donation, “the details of spending, such as how many recipients benefited from the
donation, who they are, and how much it was should be disclosed.”
To improve perceived transparency of CSR, the participants suggested using a third party in the
activity. If a company works with another reputable third party such as an NGO in its CSR activity,
millennials would trust it better in terms of doing the activity properly with high transparency
because “a third party can monitor the company to ensure it performs what it promised to the
public.” Also, they recommended the partnership because they felt the crisis-stricken company
needed to borrow another organization’s high credibility to overcome its lowered reputation.
This criterion was utilized by only the Korean participants, who considered that CSR should be
performed under the full control of the company because that would ensure the activity was
conducted with optimum efficiency. Employee training was most preferred by the participants
because “the company controls everything therefore they can be done consistently and effectively.”
The criterion of controllability was also why packaging for carbon emissions reduction gained
positive evaluation from the Korean participants. The participants thought that by involving
government in doing CSR activities, controllability over the activities would become low and the
whole CSR process “would take more time, therefore it is hard to have timely results.” In addition,
they argued that by having a full controllability, CSR activities “can be planned for the long-run and
are therefore practical.”
This research is a pioneer study that examines the role of CSR in crisis management at the postcrisis
stage among millennials. Several findings of this research have important theoretical and practical
implications that are worthy of further discussion.
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Theoretical implications
Existing academic research and industrial surveys have predominantly examined millennials’ reaction to corporate CSR initiatives as consumers in a general context. This study contributes to the
CSR and millennial literature by providing empirical support for Chinese and Korean millennials’
positive reaction to CSR initiatives in a postcrisis scenario even though such initiatives would be
viewed as reactive CSR with a self-serving motive.
As Kim and Lee (2012) suggested, when people interpret reactive CSR, both self-serving and
altruistic motives can be perceived. Even though some scholars argue that reactive CSR has a limited
effect, empirical evidence from Forehand and Grier (2003) study has suggested that both self-serving
and altruistic motives can be accepted by people as long as the motives are apparent. Our findings
build onto the two arguments by explicating how millennials in China and Korea interpret the selfserving and altruistic motives of post-CSR initiatives and how that interpretation affects overall
evaluation of CSR effort in postcrisis management.
In our study, the millennials perceived the motives as altruistic or self-serving, or both. One of the
main reasons for Korean millennials supporting employee training CSR was that they thought this
could lower uncertainty among employees and ultimately make employees become ambassadors of
the company. For millennials, the strategic motive of CSR was assumed and evaluated positively. At
the same time, both Chinese and Korean millennials evaluated employee training positively because
it is a measure for preventing future crisis and it is perceived as a promise to the stakeholders. In
addition, the participants perceived it as giving back to the society. Therefore, the support for this
CSR initiative was based on both self-serving and altruistic motives.
In addition to having both motives, current crisis management situations in a country affected the
evaluation. South Korean millennials especially showed high appreciation toward CSR initiatives
after a crisis occurs because they believed the company was trying exceptionally hard to make
amends. Owing to many historical incidents where crisis-afflicted companies did not even offer a
proper apology or compensation, the Korean millennials frequently expressed their regrets and low
level of trust and expectation toward crisis management of companies.
Overall, millennials in China and Korea in general reacted positively to CSR initiatives at the
postcrisis stage, especially when the CSR initiatives were closely relevant to the crisis and the
corporation’s business or expertise. In the postcrisis context, the CSR activities initiated by the crisisafflicted company represent corporate efforts in asking for forgiveness by going the extra mile to
make it up to society. Since gaining the public’s forgiveness helps to reduce the negative crisis
outcomes on the company, postcrisis CSR initiatives must (1) be aligned with the crisis caused by the
corporation (Kim & Choi, 2017) and its business or expertise and (2) deliver tangible results to
reflect an altruistic motive. If these two conditions are not met, Chinese and Korean millennials tend
to interpret postcrisis CSR initiatives as merely self-serving (to cover up the crisis) rather than as
making amends (with both self-serving and altruistic motives) to society. Consequently, such
postcrisis CSR initiatives backfire on the corporation and generate negative outcomes on crisis
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Even though our interview data have suggested similar patterns in the way Chinese and Korean
millennials evaluate CSR initiatives in the postcrisis context, some differences between the two
groups were also evident.
First, the Chinese participants placed more weight on crisis relevancy than CSR fit of a postcrisis
CSR in evaluating its effect on obtaining forgiveness, while their Korean counterparts had the
opposite perception. For example, the Chinese participants rated CSR Example 1 (packaging for
carbon emissions reduction) as one of the least effective CSR initiatives, while the Korean participants ranked it as one of the top three most effective ones (along with the other two high CSR fit
Secondly, Chinese millennials had a high regard for educational CSR initiatives that would deliver
tangible outcomes. They believed education could enhance people’s knowledge and ability to trigger
behavioral changes. This belief was witnessed by high preferences for educational program on
healthy eating and donation for vocational education. Korean millennials, however, evaluated both
initiatives less favorably even though the former had a high CSR fit. Although the existing literature
suggests that CSR should have high relevance to the company’s business no matter how publics
perceive the underlying motivation (Becker-Olsen et al., 2006; Du, Bhattacharya, & Sen, 2010; Elving,
2013;), our findings suggest that CSR fit is not in itself sufficient for CSR effectiveness in the
postcrisis context. As Barone and others (2007) explained, the preference for a particular CSR
activity can alter the effect of CSR fit.
Lastly, controllability is a critical factor in evaluating a CSR initiative among Korean millennials,
while it is not a salient factor among Chinese millennials. It may be argued that the criterion of
controllability stems from Koreans’ general skepticism toward the government. Historically, Korean
conglomerates have worked with the government, often in the guise of CSR, resulting in different
forms of corruption.
It is also interesting to see that Korean participants get irritated when a company asks stakeholders to participate in its CSR efforts. Although CSR involvement can create a better reputation
and consumer loyalty (Aguinis & Glavas, 2012b; Du et al., 2010), this was not the case in a crisis
management context targeting Korean millennials.
Practical implications
This study found that high-fit CSR with tangible results appeal to Chinese and Korean millennials in
a postcrisis context. It suggests that communication professionals responsible for crisis management
can explain to the top management why a CSR initiative should be used in the postcrisis context if a
corporation wishes to maximize its crisis management effectiveness. It also suggests that any
postcrisis CSR initiative must be carefully designed, considering its fit to the crisis situation and
corporate business expertise, to be effective. The initiative should be sensitive to local preferences as
well (e.g., controllability in Korea). As noted by Lee et al. (2012), CSR fit solely from the company’s
perspective is not enough. By incorporating the stakeholders’ values and preferences, the CSR fit can
be optimized.
It is difficult to argue that the Chinese and Korean participants preferred a particular CSR type –
environmental, community or employees – in the postcrisis context. Rather, they looked at the level
of impact, uniqueness, transparency, and continuity of a CSR initiative to judge its effectiveness in
seeking forgiveness in the postcrisis situation.
With respect to the impact criterion, some participants in both countries argued that post-CSR
initiatives targeting a specific group that was possibly harmed by the crisis would be good. This
finding supports that of Ricks (2005): targeting a particular group in the philanthropic activity can
create positive attitudes not only in the particular group but among the general group.
Communication professionals targeting Chinese or Korean millennials should be aware that they
have high expectations about CSR’s reach and beneficiary scope.
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Uniqueness facilitates CSR effectiveness because, from the public perspective, novelty gains
attention. Also, millennials are keen on innovation with purpose because they are well-educated,
technologically savvy, and entrepreneurial (Martin, 2005; Murdough, 2016). For companies, this
means a CSR initiative using a new method or targeting a specific social cause leads to competitive
Transparency serves as another criterion because of low trust in the postcrisis situation, in which
public trust in the organization declines. Du and others (2010) argued that CSR communication is
essential to eliminate publics’ skepticism of corporate intention in CSR efforts and that comprehensive CSR information should therefore be conveyed to stakeholders. Saat and Selamat’s (2014)
research on CSR has shown that rich CSR information can enhance stakeholder trust toward an
organization. When an organization is genuine in implementing an ongoing CSR program and
provides honest in-depth information about what the organization has achieved, a trusting relationship can be established in the postcrisis stage, and publics will be able to see the organization’s
commitment to CSR initiatives.
Therefore, during and after the CSR implementation, communication professionals should
remind the public of the CSR attributes and, more importantly, update the public on the CSR
impact by reporting actual deliverables using tangible matrices or beneficiary testimony on a regular
basis (Du et al., 2010). Calabrese, Costa, Menichini, and Rosati (2013) recommended using sustainability reports to communicate about CSR activities to increase a company’s transparency and
accountability among stakeholders. In the reports, the impact of CSR should be well-articulated so
that stakeholders can assess the CSR’s long-term and short-term implications. Such communication
can minimize public skepticism of the postcrisis CSR initiative to ensure the CSR initiative’s
effectiveness on postcrisis management (Brown & Krishna, 2004).
Continuity is another important factor. If continuity is missing, millennials tend to perceive
postcrisis CSR as insincere and self-serving. For example, if money is donated to the community as a
simple one-off transaction, the millennials become skeptical and interpret the company’s action as
covering up its crisis without carefully considering giving back to the society.
When announcing the postcrisis CSR initiative, corporations should effectively address the above
CSR features (crisis-relevancy, CSR fit, expected impact, uniqueness, transparency, and continuity)
to gain public support for the initiative by minimizing the public’s perception of the CSR initiative as
a purely self-serving act that leads to CSR skepticism (Rim & Kim, 2016).
Research limitations and future directions
The generalizability of this exploratory study is limited due to the qualitative nature of the method
being used. Future studies utilizing surveys or experiments can be conducted to validate the
generality of our research results. Effects of postcrisis CSR other than seeking forgiveness (e.g.,
trust cultivation or purchase intention) should be explored and tested. This study has identified a
contrast in attitude to education as a CSR focus between Chinese and Korean millennials. Future
researchers can explore factors (e.g., cultural influences) underlying postcrisis CSR preferences.
Future experimental studies can test the effects of CSR fit and CSR crisis relevancy on stakeholder
attitudes toward CSR and evaluation of the company in crisis. The level of perceived crisis
responsibility and perceived motive behind CSR (self-serving vs. altruistic) can be possible
Another limitation is the interviewees’ homogeneity in age. Several scholars (Bucic et al., 2012)
have argued against treating millennials as one niche group because people of the millennial
generation have a wide age range (from 17 to 37 years old) that results in different media use for
business information, including CSR messages (Hung-Baesecke, Chen, & Boyd, 2016), and decisionmaking involving CSR (Lu et al., 2013). Future research should examine the appropriate segmentation of millennials to enhance strategic communication about CSR with millennial subgroups in the
postcrisis context.
Hyun Jee Oh
Regina Chen
Chun-ju Flora Hung-Baesecke
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