Original Research

Sensemaking and corporate social responsibility: Implications for stakeholder communication amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Sherwin Govender, Arnoldus T. Smit
South African Journal of Business Management | Vol 53, No 1 | a2806 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajbm.v53i1.2806 | © 2022 Sherwin Govender, Arnoldus T. Smit | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 21 July 2021 | Published: 24 May 2022

About the author(s)

Sherwin Govender, Stellenbosch Business School, Faculty of Economics and Management Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Arnoldus T. Smit, Stellenbosch Business School, Faculty of Economics and Management Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa

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Purpose: The aim of this research study was to establish via a linguistic analysis of stakeholder communication texts, how organisational sensemaking in a crisis situation, such as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, might influence the social responsibility orientation of companies.

Design/methodology/approach: Data were collected from public social responsibility statements of 10 financial services companies before and immediately after the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and analysed using the Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC) method. In this way, qualitative information could be turned into statistical data and made comparable across the sample.

Results: The results confirm that the social responsibility sensemaking processes in companies manifest in their public stakeholder communications. While the analysed statements indicate an increase in affiliation with the predicament of stakeholders, it also reveals reduced levels of transparency. This tension between affiliation and transparency holds consequences for authenticity and reputation in corporate social responsibility (CSR) sensemaking and orientation.

Practical implications: Corporate decision-makers and communication experts should take special care of the relationship between CSR sensemaking and stakeholder communication as interconnected processes in a purposeful and mindful manner.

Originality/value: The research study demonstrates how the analysis of textual statements can be used as a lens into CSR sensemaking in the context of disruption and adversity. This establishes a method for measurement of CSR orientation that can assess an organisation’s current orientation, as well as shifts in orientation because of crisis situations. Organisations can use this information to evaluate their CSR communications so that they are more aligned with intentions.


corporate social responsibility; sensemaking; stakeholder communication; linguistic inquiry; crisis situation


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