With the growing embrace of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability by companies over the past decades, the communication of such initiatives and programmes has increasingly become a substantial challenge for organisations. Consequently, CSR communication is now considered an integral element in building stakeholder support, managing corporate reputation [1
], and gaining legitimacy [2
], and has thus become increasingly relevant to companies investing in CSR programmes.
More recently, a debate has emerged amongst organisational and communication scholars as to whether communication of CSR should take place only in relation to completed and successful CSR, or also in relation to CSR aspirations [4
], communication which announces intentions and plans for the future. This polarisation is reflected in the concepts of discursive opening and discursive closing [8
]. Discursive opening refers to an environment where issues can be constitutively explored in a productive manner, while discursive closing captures the opposite, negating discussion and debate [8
]. On a practical level, CSR communication can be divided into talk (CSR aspirations and intentions to take place in the future) and action (actual organisational CSR practice that has taken place in the past) [6
], resulting in organisations having to decide if and how to balance these two elements. Previous research carried out by the author has highlighted that organisational actors experience this as a significant tension, at times even contradiction or paradox [9
]. One mainstream communication tool where organisations are commonly faced with balancing talk and action are CSR reports. Within this communication genre, companies disclose CSR-related performance to their stakeholders [10
], and more recently use the reports for strategic marketing and self-promotion purposes [12
]. Thus, tension between talk and action is further reflected in the combination of informational (statement of facts and achievements using concrete language [13
]) and promotional elements (idealised statements of what the company aspires to, usually expressed using vague language [7
]) in the genre of CSR reporting, resulting in hybridity [15
The academic concept of aspirational CSR talk is relatively recent, and empirical studies examining how this concept is lived and executed in managerial practice are only beginning to emerge [9
]. While the transformative capacity of aspirational talk and discursive opening has been highlighted in previous conceptual studies [6
], research has yet to account fully for the dynamics of using future-oriented CSR communication in an empirical context. This article seeks to address this research gap by taking a tensional approach rooted in paradox theory [16
] to explore aspirational talk, and to demonstrate, by unfolding the tension between talk and action over time, that it is in fact the dialectic framing of the talk–action relationship by the organisation, in combination with stakeholder involvement, that acts as a driver for transformative change in CSR.
Furthermore, this article seeks to add to the emerging body of tension management conceptualisation and paradox theory within communication scholarship [3
], answering calls to unfold tensions and paradoxes longitudinally [16
] and illustrating organisational management of the talk–action tension over time. The temporal nature of this study is particularly suited to examine how organisational phenomena such as aspirational talk “emerge, change and unfold over time” [27
] (p. 1) and thus adds to process research in management and organisation studies.
To achieve this, the research explores how the interplay/tension between talk and action develops, changes and evolves within the CSR reporting of an international multinational corporation over a 14-year period. This discursive analysis of CSR reporting is then further supplemented by in-depth interviews with Nestlé managers and other key NGO stakeholders to gain insights into the underlying tension management and sensemaking processes. A tensional approach is used to explore the relationship between talk and action and to shed light on the concept of aspirational talk. A general overview of the theoretical concepts informing this research is provided. Then the selection of the sample is explained, and an outline of the research methodology is provided. The manifestation of the talk–action tension in the CSR reports is demonstrated and is linked to the changing terrain of the broader CSR talk–action discourse. This reveals the clashes, but also reinforcement, between conflicting logics of discursive opening and closing in the processes of CSR reporting. The interview findings provide insights into the underlying mechanisms of tension management and organisational sensemaking. After the results are presented, the implications of the findings are discussed and recommendations for future research are developed.
Organisation scholars have made calls to explore aspirational CSR communication from an empirical perspective [6
], and to investigate the transformative potential of discursive opening [8
] within CSR and sustainability. CSR reports are a widely and frequently used means to communicate about organisational achievements, as well as intentions. Combining the sometimes opposing poles of talk and action poses difficulties due to the consequent tensions and clashes between organisational self-promotion and factual reporting style. Paradox scholars, on the other hand, have called for more research exploring how tension management evolves, changes, and adapts over time [16
This longitudinal study of CSR and sustainability reporting reveals how the organisation discursively manages the talk–action tension, and traces the tension management strategies over a period of 14 years. The study finds evidence of three tensional approaches to navigating the often opposing poles of talk and action, transitioning from denial, to embrace, to transcendence, and thus supports the paradox literature view of tension management as a fluid and evolving practice. The analysis of the internal and external experts supports the existence of those three phases detected in the documentary analysis.
The empirical data demonstrates that, during the first phase, the organisation attempts to silence the tension by prioritizing a discourse of performance through opposition [61
] and selection [62
]. While this dualistic, either/or response can be seen as a mechanism to ward off criticisms of greenwashing [38
], and appears to be rooted in the organizational culture of the examined organisation, it constrains aspiration, and omits the transformative potential that aspirational CSR communication can offer through stretch and align mechanisms involving communicating idealised versions of the organisation. However, as reporting progresses, and the organisation embraces a more active approach to managing CSR and involving stakeholders, the discourses of performance and aspiration begin to feature simultaneously—talk and action coexist, and integration [62
] can be observed. Discursive mechanisms to manage this coexistence are focusing on aspiration in the shorter term, allowing the organisation to vacillate [61
] between talk and action, though here again, the potential of aspirational talk is not fully harnessed.
In the third phase, the organisation manages to intertwine and synthesise [61
] the two discourses of performance and aspiration. By discursively concretising vague aspiration, the organisation attempts to transcend [62
] the clash between talk and action in its reporting. The forces of discursive opening and closing are simultaneously at play, and by transforming a vague ambition into a specific performance target, the organisation attempts to reduce any criticisms of greenwashing and makes its vision credible by “enabling the external world to look at what we are doing and how we are doing things” (#3). Thus, the organisation deftly manages the tension between talk and action by quantifying its aspiration, by blending linguistic elements of discursive closing with the discourse of aspiration. If considered in isolation, this might be viewed as discursive closure alone, preventing the performative capacity of discourses of aspiration. However, on closer examination, it seems that the organisation is simply “thinking out loud” and engages in reflexive practice [66
] reflecting on where it would like to be and how it can get there.
By combining vague and concrete elements and by mixing discourses of aspiration and performance, the reporting becomes dynamic, and the opposites act as a “push-pull on each other like a rubber band” [16
] (p. 7), which is significantly driven by the demands of material NGO stakeholders. Rather than conceptualising talk and action as a dilemma, requiring an either/or response, the organisation actively reimagines and reframes [60
] the relationship between performance and aspiration as a dialectic process. The interplay between opposites—talk and action, aspiration and performance, vagueness and concreteness—gathers momentum as the various elements are synthesized [61
], fueling the transformative potential of aspirational CSR. The tension between the opposites acts as a stimulant to the sustainability debate as “dynamic interplay of opposites becomes a source of energy, creativity, and dialogue” [16
] (p. 11).
summarises the above discussion of phases and contextualises them within the tension management approaches. It also indicates how the dichotomy between talk and action is navigated under the various paradox approaches and links the outcome to aspirational CSR communication.
The research unfolds the organisation’s increasingly refined approach to managing the talk–action tension, which evolves from either/or thinking, to both-and thinking, to a more-than approach in which the tension is embraced and managed through sensemaking [16
At various points through the reports, evidence can be found highlighting the deeper organisational sensemaking processes that are triggered as part of the reporting practice. When reflecting on the role of reporting within the organisation, Nestlé finds that “it is no longer simply a collection of anecdotal stories and data, but rather a holistic exercise in internalising and improving a company’s commitment to sustainable development in a way that can be demonstrated to both internal and external stakeholders and shareholders alike” [106
] (p. 6), which is in line with Weick’s notion of “how can I know what I say if I don’t see what I say?”. The interview findings provide even deeper insights into this sensemaking process, highlighting the dialectic interplay between retrospective and prospective sensemaking, which appear to be iterative, rather than linear. Both elements are shown to be in dialogue, with retrospection (what’s the story?) acting as a springboard for prospective articulations (now what?), and vice versa. So, sustainability is reported on, acting as a springboard for organisational action.
If the above cycle took place in isolation, the interplay between talk and action would never be challenged. However, in Nestlé it can be observed that talk–action sensemaking takes place in dialogue with stakeholders, which at times is shown to be tensional and conflictual [130
], pointing towards a wider social and systemic sensemaking. Both internal and external stakeholders point towards a stakeholder responsiveness on behalf of the organisation. This stakeholder interaction extends the previously stated sensemaking recipe to “how can I know who we are becoming until I see what they say and do with our actions?” [41
] (p. 416), pushing out the boundaries and fuelling the transformative potential of aspirational talk in an outward spiral-like fashion.
This study highlights the iterative nature of reporting, allowing for the exploration of aspiration and performance, which can indeed be a driver of change under boundary conditions of self-reflection and openness to embrace tension. The results of the documentary analysis and the analysis of the interview data point towards a continued redrafting of organisational CSR aspirations over the years, so that they become more comprehensive and responsive.
These findings have important implications for the scholarship and practice of CSR reporting, by countering claims that the activity of reporting will become obsolete [131
]. Instead, this research reveals the reflective and reflexive capacity that reporting can have within the organisation.
Further, this research makes manifest the power struggles between external stakeholders and meso structures, such as the GRI reporting guidelines, which shape the reporting agenda and act as push and pull forces to focus on either performance or aspiration. The reports show evidence of the organisation acting on recommendations to include more performance-based reporting and the subsequent call to embrace a more future-oriented approach. However, it is also demonstrated that in the case of the organisation studied, which is considered a CSR leader by many, this responsiveness to stakeholders results in the organisation embracing aspirational talk ahead of the GRI guidelines thus starting to incorporate a futurist voice. It is important to keep in mind that the organisation selected for this analysis had experienced reputational crises in relation to its CSR. As the interview findings highlight, these shocks and rising skepticism, are found to have caused the organisation to seek more interaction and dialogue.
5.1. Contribution to Theory
This study explores at a detailed level how the practice of aspirational talk and the resulting tension between talk and action unfolded over a period of 14 years within the CSR reporting of a multinational corporation. The empirical insights into the discursive tension management broaden the understanding of the academic concept of aspirational talk at a practical level, and it is the first study to do so in an empirical context.
By applying a tensional approach to the concept of aspirational talk, the management of talk and action is explained in much detail, outlining the specific strategy of blending linguistic elements of discursive closing with the discourse of aspiration, while at the same time answering calls by academics to focus on systems/process-based studies to extend paradox theory by examining how tensions emerge and develop over time. The temporal nature of this study unfolds the discursive management of aspirational talk over time and thus adds empirical evidence to process research in management and organisation studies [27
Christensen et al.’s [6
] seminal work on aspirational talk focuses on the performativity of talk, and zooms in on the difference between talk and action that acts as a motivator to achieve more sustainable practice. This paper argues that the existing literature can be enriched by adopting a tensional approach to explore aspirational talk. It puts forth the view that depending on how the talk–action relationship is viewed, the transformative potential of aspirational talk is determined. An either/or approach to the talk–action relationship will constrain aspirational talk, while adopting a dialectic view of this relationship will yield the transformative effect of aspirational CSR communication, allowing for talk and action to coexist and keeping the gap between talk and action adroitly manageable [133
This examination of the management of the talk–action tension contributes to the tension/paradox literature by highlighting how the dynamic interplay between talk and action helps to further the CSR agenda, thus underscoring the “developmental nature of dialectical systems” [16
] (p. 57) and answers calls to research CSR communication through a lens of dialectics [19
5.2. Contribution to Practice
Looking to the reporting practice of a large multinational that has experienced reputational ups and downs may prove useful for organisations currently grappling with how to include more aspirational CSR talk in their communication. The longitudinal examination in this instance highlights the inadequacy of attempting to moderate the tension by focusing on performance, as the potential of aspirational talk is not fully realised. Separation of aspiration and performance are also shown to have limited effectiveness as they are not stable states, and are only suited for the short term. Instead, a synthesis approach, combining both talk and action in a dialectic interplay, by taking a longer-term perspective, by being more specific in stating its aspirations, enables the organisation so match talk to action in a meaningful way.
The evidence from the analysis also suggests that the process of aspirational CSR reporting can indeed act as a site of sensemaking, allowing the organisation to engage in retrospective and prospective sensemaking processes. Practiced together, they allow the organisation to develop a strategic plan on how to achieve the organisational aspiration of becoming more sustainable. The specific case shows how the organisation abandons monologic, one-way reporting aimed at persuading (as observed in the earlier reporting) in favour of dialogic, two-way symmetric reporting (in Phase 3 reporting), which allows for this type of dialectic sensemaking.
Most importantly, it highlights the role of stakeholder involvement and responsiveness in this process. Rather than considering the CSR report a finished product, it should be used as a ground for discussion with stakeholders. This dialogue, allowing stakeholders to co-create the organisation’s CSR narrative allows demonstrates how greater acceptance of discursive opening can be yielded and used to drive CSR. This finding offers valuable insight to other organisations who have yet to embrace aspirational CSR by outlining how the talk–action tension may be navigated.
5.3. Limitations and Future Research
This study, due to its focus on depth rather than breadth, suffers from some methodological limitations. The study is based primarily on secondary data sources combined with a small sample of in-depth interviews, investigating the longitudinal reporting of one organisation. This means care must be used in any be generalisation. The study represents only a single case; however, many scholars argue that a level of generalisation is permissible [114
]. Further, the focus in this study is not on the issues, initiatives, and impact reported, but on the management of the talk–action tension.
Additionally, due to the reasons described in the sample selection section of this article, certain stakeholder groups have not been included in this study. Nonetheless, there is merit in exploring how organisations interact with other stakeholder groups. Specifically, organisation–consumer interactions have not been explored yet in relation to aspirational talk. As the most common medium for this type of interaction is social media, future studies could examine how talk–action tensions surface and evolve on social media platforms.
More systematic longitudinal studies exploring the tensional management of talk and action are needed to compare what impact different industry backgrounds may have on the development of tension management strategies. Despite these limitations, this article has merit: it is the first study to explore theoretically and empirically the discursive strategies used by organisations to manage the talk–action tension.