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Does Your Company Seem Socially Irresponsible?

Public perceptions of corporate irresponsibility are shaped in subjective, yet predictable, ways. "People like tidy stories with a clear villain," write Nathan T. Washburn of Thunderbird School of Global Management and Donald Lange of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. "We lose interest when there are too many factors, extra complexity or too much ambiguity." That means that powerful negative images can be hard to respond to.

"Public perceptions of corporate irresponsibility are formed from judgments of three core pieces of information," they write. Those pieces of information? The harmful effect itself, the presence of an innocent victim and the organization that is culpable.

Washburn and Lange detail the model they've developed that describes "how these perceptions of harm, innocence and culpability are shaped in subjective, yet predictable, ways." Their model can be used both to predict public perceptions and even to influence perceptions: "Perceptions of harmful effects, innocent victims and culpable corporations can be fortified or weakened, depending on the type of information presented and how that information is framed."

Their model has public policy implications. "By better understanding the types of perceptual biases that exist, policy makers can be aware of and help correct skewed public perceptions of corporate social irresponsibility," the authors write. "If irresponsible practices exist industry-wide, the entire industry should be held accountable rather than a single prominent corporation."

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