Dr Diletta Acuti is one of the hosts of the 7th International CSR Communication Conference (CSRCOM), taking place here at the School of Management in September 2024. In this article, she examines what’s required for meaningful conversations around corporate social responsibility.

When firms aim to tackle significant social and environmental issues through corporate social responsibility (CSR), they usually initiate dialogues with stakeholders. These include groups such as consumers, employees and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

For instance, businesses may organise focus groups and roundtables where stakeholders can share their views, or open virtual dialogues on social media where stakeholders can ‘set the agenda’ of issues they expect firms to address. But while these dialogues can genuinely seek to bring value to society, in some cases they are merely used as a symbolic façade or a means to improve companies’ legitimacy.

This occurs especially in industries with detrimental social and environmental footprints, such as fashion or mining. The possibility of businesses’ deceptive intents has left some stakeholders sceptical, and potentially less willing to collaborate on these issues. This lack of trust may also result in missed opportunities for problem-solving and shared decision-making that could benefit all involved.

This raises the question of whether stakeholder dialogue can generate a positive impact for both business and society. In our research, we reviewed 374 scholarly outputs in management literature from across a 30-year time period. We found that qualitative studies have dominated stakeholder dialogue in CSR research, with articles largely focusing on CSR in general rather than specific issues (such as social inequalities or climate change).

We also identified two different conceptualisations of stakeholder dialogue is CSR as ‘integral’ – when CSR is understood, constructed, and operationalised through dialogue - and ‘incidental’ – with dialogue viewed as a response to CSR from outside of the organisation.

Piecing together the diverse studies in the field, we found that firms need to overcome three main shortcomings in order to make stakeholder dialogue effective and meaningful: dialogical closure, firm-centrism and idealization.

Dialogical closure

This refers to the tendency to use dialogue as a temporary, ad-hoc solution for addressing business and social issues. For instance, consider a fashion firm striving for sustainable waste disposal, seeking input from NGOs and municipalities. Through a successful focus group, the firm gains valuable insights on waste disposal practices.

However, once the immediate issue is resolved, despite publicising their environmental efforts in the press, they may cease communication with these stakeholders. Later, the company realises that it continues to generate significant amounts of waste and engages another stakeholder, such as a partner in the supply chain, to explore waste reduction strategies. Although they find solutions, the dialogue is terminated once again.

Now, let's look at an alternative scenario: instead of closing the dialogue after addressing the initial issue, the fashion brand continues engaging stakeholders throughout the year, sharing knowledge and collaborating on disposal and recycling initiatives. This ongoing process not only improves the firm's recycling practices but also leads to the discovery of partners offering sustainable packaging solutions. As a result, the firm not only enhances its environmental responsibility but also prevents potential future issues.

The first scenario – dialogue on an ad-hoc basis – is common. However, it limits the potential benefits of a more open and iterative exchange, which is crucial for effectively addressing business and societal needs.


This indicates the tendency of firms to put themselves and their issues at the centre of the dialogue. Accordingly, the necessities and views of ‘the others’ – such as communities, NGOs, or the environment – are not prioritised.

Following the example above, the business may continue initiating and closing conversations with various parties to tackle environmental issues and find solutions together.

While at first stakeholders may participate with enthusiasm, they may become less motivated if the dialogue always revolves around corporate issues rather than also taking their needs into account. On the contrary, if stakeholders’ needs are placed at the centre of CSR dialogues, they may be more motivated to engage with firms and even decide to proactively contribute.

Although focusing on their own issues is natural for firms, it's important to also involve active listening and responsiveness to the concerns, perspectives and needs of stakeholders. In the CSR field in particular, dialogue should focus on ‘the others’ and acknowledge a plurality of voices.


This is linked with scholars’ and practitioners’ efforts to find the characteristics of an ideal dialogue: it should be meaningful, respectful, inclusive and responsible. However, reality throws up factors and limitations that make it difficult to find this ‘ideal’ process for every firm and stakeholder.

Indeed, in many cases, this fluid process is not practised in a structured way but occurs informally and can be initiated by unexpected participants – an advocacy group on social media or a citizen journalist, for instance – beyond the firm's intentions.

If the fashion firm from our example is a large corporation, it will probably have the resources to provide structured spaces for CSR dialogues; for smaller firms, dialogue may be more likely to be more casual and involve local stakeholders.

In conclusion, we believe dialogue should be ongoing, stakeholder-focused and avoid pursuing the ‘ideal’ situation over all else to be able to benefit both businesses and society.

In our paper, we pose questions that could help decision-makers design and practise a dialogue that benefits all involved. What is the role of stakeholders in a genuine dialogue with firms? What are the goals and potential pitfalls of stakeholder dialogue? How do firms include absent stakeholders (such as nature) and consider their needs?

We look forward to discussing stakeholder dialogue in CSR further and providing potential answers to these lingering questions at CSRCOM later this year.

Posted in: Business and society, Communication, Conferences, CSR, Research

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