COLUMBIA, Mo. - Most grew up with the familiar saying, "It is better to give than to receive," and many corporations live by this adage when they donate money to charitable causes. University of Missouri-Columbia researchers, however, have found that corporate giving may not be the cure-all that some companies would expect.
In a study published in the journal Public Relations Review, two researchers - Glen Cameron, professor of strategic communication and Maxine Wilson Gregory Chair in Journalism Research at the Missouri School of Journalism, and Jiyang Bae, who was then an MU doctoral student - found that participants in their study demonstrated negative attitudes toward companies that appeared to give out of self-interest. When companies with good reputations gave money to charitable causes, attitudes toward those companies were positive. However, when companies with bad reputations gave to charitable causes, negative attitudes toward the companies were heightened.
"People trigger a sophisticated and active attribution process when they become suspicious of something, causing them to judge the corporation's real motivation," Cameron said. "Public suspicion cued by prior corporate reputation influences people's attitudes toward corporate giving and makes them suspicious of the reason for corporate giving."
In the study, 72 participants were given one of two fictitious news articles to read. One described a company with a good reputation and another with a bad reputation. After rating one of the companies' reputations, participants were given another article describing that company's charitable contributions. The study concluded that charitable giving was seen as self-interested when the companies had bad reputations.
"Corporate giving does not produce unconditional positive impacts on the corporate side. Corporate public relations managers who plan to give money to 'save face' after severe reputation damage should reconsider their giving because the public is diligent about interpreting the real motivation for why a company gives money to social causes," said Bae, who has now completed her doctorate.
According to Cameron and Bae, corporate giving can be positive for companies with good reputations, but it may be better for companies with questionable reputations to work on enhancing public perception of their trustworthiness before giving to charitable causes. The researchers said most companies cannot rely solely on corporate giving as a tool to improve reputation.
Bae is now working on research that suggests corporate giving by companies with bad reputations may not only impact public perception of those companies but also may taint public perception of the recipients of those gifts.