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On the Role of Social Media in the 'Responsible' Food Business: Blogger Buzz on Health and Obesity Issues

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To contribute to the debate on the role of social media in responsible business, this article explores blogger buzz in reaction to food companies’ press releases on health and obesity issues, considering the content and the level of fit between the CSR initiatives and the company. Findings show that companies issued more product-related initiatives than promotion-related ones. Among these, less than half generated a substantial number of responses from bloggers, which could not be identified as a specific group. While new product introductions led to positive buzz, modifications of current products resulted in more negative responses, even if there was a high fit with core business. While promotion-related press releases were received negatively in general, particularly periphery promotion (compared to core promotion) generated most reactions. Our exploratory study suggests that companies can increase the likelihood of a positive reaction if they carefully consider the fit between initiatives and their core business, while taking the notion of ‘controversial fit,’ relating to the unhealthy nature of original products, into account. Further research avenues and implications, as well as limitations, are discussed.
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ONTHEROLEOFSOCIALMEDIAINTHERESPONSIBLEFOODBUSINESS:
BLOGGERBUZZONHEALTHANDOBESITYISSUES
HSINHSUANMEGLEE,WILLEMIJNVANDOLEN&ANSKOLK
JournalofBusinessEthics,forthcoming
Abstract
Tocontributetothedebateontheroleofsocialmediainresponsiblebusiness,thisarticle
exploresbloggerbuzzinreactiontofoodcompanies’pressreleasesonhealthandobesity
issues,consideringthecontentandtheleveloffitbetweentheCSRinitiativesandthe
company.Findingsshowthatcompaniesissuedmoreproductrelatedinitiativesthan
promotionrelatedones.Amongthese,lessthanhalfgeneratedasubstantialnumberof
responsesfrombloggers,whichcouldnotbeidentifiedasaspecificgroup.Whilenew
productintroductionsledtopositivebuzz,modificationsofcurrentproductsresultedin
morenegativeresponses,eveniftherewasahighfitwithcorebusiness.Whilepromotion
relatedpressreleaseswerereceivednegativelyingeneral,particularlyperipherypromotion
(comparedtocorepromotion)generatedmostreactions.Ourexploratorystudysuggests
thatcompaniescanincreasethelikelihoodofapositivereactioniftheycarefullyconsider
thefitbetweeninitiativesandtheircorebusiness,whiletakingthenotionof‘controversial
fit,’relatingtotheunhealthynatureoforiginalproducts,intoaccount.Furtherresearch
avenuesandimplications,aswellaslimitations,arediscussed.
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ON THE ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA IN THE RESPONSIBLE FOOD BUSINESS:
BLOGGER BUZZ ON HEALTH AND OBESITY ISSUES
INTRODUCTION
In recent years, food companies have increasingly been called upon to take responsibility in
reducing obesity and promoting health (Young and Nestle, 2007). Although individual
behaviour and genetic predispositions could result in health problems, high-calorie products
and marketing practices are believed to contribute to the obesity epidemic (Seiders and Petty,
2007). These social issues have entered the public debate as corporate social responsibility
(CSR) concerns to which food companies have felt obliged to respond, also because of
(threats of) regulatory measures. Reputation clearly plays a role in this respect, as potential
consequences may be large (cf. Yoon et al., 2006); as noted by Wansink and Huckabee (2005,
p. 1), “the threat of being the tobacco industry of the new millennium is not a trivial fear of
leading packaged goods companies and quick service restaurants”. In reaction, food
companies have started to take steps, including changes in package-size, portions and recipes,
and the provision of nutrition information through labels (Kolk et al., 2012; Wansink and
Huckabee, 2005). However, as the food industry is currently producing more than the
population needs and profits rely on increasing consumption (Ludwig and Nestle, 2008),
many people believe that its CSR activities are limited and have focused on transferring
responsibility to personal will power (e.g., Koplan and Brownell, 2010), resulting in negative
responses towards these initiatives.
Coca-Cola, for example, recently launched a two-minute advertisement in the US,
which emphasised that the company provides low-caloric options and has included this
information on its labels. The campaign suggests that “if you eat and drink more calories than
you burn off, you’ll gain weight.” While the content of advertising is in line with Coca-Cola’s
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CSR theme ‘Live Positively’ and the company indeed offers more low-calorie options than in
the past, the adverts immediately drew negative criticism from various stakeholders.1
Similarly, the exclusive deal with McDonalds as the only branded restaurant on site during
the 2012 Olympics in London was strongly criticised, despite the Olympic committee’s
defense that the company’s healthier menu options indicate that it takes its “public health
responsibility” seriously.2 On the other hand, Burger King’s introduction of apple slides cut to
look like fries was positively received by the press, although not extensively discussed.
The negative associations with health issues may have forced companies to
proactively communicate and engage in health improving initiatives (Schrempf, 2012). At the
same time, however, legitimacy of companies that are subject to societal debates is often
challenged by stakeholders who are sceptical (Du and Vieira Jr. 2012). Different responses of
consumers towards CSR initiatives of food companies might be explained by the level of fit
between the CSR activities and the company. The influence of fit has been widely studied in
the context of cause-related marketing (e.g. Becker-Olsen and Hill, 2006) and social alliances
(e.g. Vock et al., 2013), but has not been applied to general CSR policies thus far. Literature
on the influence of fit shows that the level of the fit between CSR activities and the company
can be high or low. A high fit means that there is congruence between the cause and the brand
in terms of image, function, and target markets, while a low fit refers to inconsistency
between the cause and the brand. Researchers show that a high fit is more positively
perceived by consumers than a low fit (e.g. Becker-Olsen and Hill, 2006). In the context of
the food industry, this would suggest that a high fit between CSR initiatives and companies’
core business, i.e., manufacturing and/or serving food, will lead to favourable consumer
responses. When the activities are inconsistent and have a low fit with core business,
perceptions will be more negative.
So far, it has been unclear how consumers respond to different types of CSR activities
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in the food industry. We focus on two types of CSR initiatives that have been implemented by
food companies, product-related and promotion-related activities. In order to compare the
differential perceptions toward the two types of initiatives, we explore press releases from
food companies about health and obesity issues and blogger responses to these releases on the
internet. Press releases are regularly used by food companies to announce their health-related
initiatives to the public (Whysall, 2005). Until recently, these were targeted at traditional
media such as newspapers, radio, and television. However, with the rise of social media,
corporate announcements are often picked up and discussed by others than professional
journalists (Wright and Hinson, 2008). In view of their greater interactivity and frequency,
small online contributions via social media can quickly spread and generate ‘buzz’. For
companies, online responses are unpredictable but with a potentially large impact, even
separate from the ‘traditional’ news media, and thus something that they need to take into
account (Meraz, 2011). User-generated content such as blogs may affect reputation and
performance; it has even been said that social media contribute to long-run sales growth,
while traditional media have a shorter-term impact (Stephen and Galak, 2012).
In light of the unique challenges the food industry is facing, this article explores
blogger buzz in reaction to company press releases on health and obesity issues in the food
industry. We focus on blogging, which has become more important in demonstrating
consumer power over the years (Kerr et al., 2012). As the most used approaches by the food
industry to prime consumers’ interpretations of companies’ activities and values are product
and promotion (Schröder and McEachern, 2005), we use these two categories to critically
examine blogger responses and sentiments toward the CSR practices of 10 leading food
companies. More specifically, this research intends to explore the following questions: 1)
What are the health-related CSR practices that have been communicated by these food
companies? 2) Which types of CSR initiatives have generated awareness among bloggers? 3)
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What are the bloggers’ responses toward these CSR communications? 4) Who are the
bloggers that participate in the discussions?
This paper responds to the call for a better understanding of CSR communications in
industries and companies that are negatively associated with social, environmental and ethical
issues (Du and Vieira Jr. 2012; Godfrey et al., 2009; Yoon et al, 2006). It focuses on a
specific set of issues faced by companies for which CSR concerns directly relate to their core
business activities. We also add a novel perspective on CSR awareness research by
empirically exploring bloggers’ responses toward CSR initiatives. We aim to provide input
into the broader debate about the (future) role of social media in responsible business by
contributing insights from one type of online reaction. Before moving to a presentation and
discussion of results, we will first give an overview of health issues and CSR in the food
industry, and CSR communications and blogging, followed by an explanation of sample and
methodology.
HEALTH ISSUES AND CSR IN THE FOOD INDUSTRY
The food industry has seen a dynamic process of rules imposed by governments and standards
and/or codes adopted voluntarily by companies. For example, after bans on soda sales were
adopted in several states in the US, the American Beverage Association, which included
PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, agreed to ‘voluntarily’ stop the sale of all high caloric drinks in
schools in 2006 (Burros and Warner, 2006). This example shows that many of the
‘responsibilities’ expected from food companies are in direct conflict with their core
businesses, i.e., selling more products. Moreover, despite growing demand for (self-)
regulation from various stakeholders, the effectiveness of such initiatives is still under
discussion (Simon, 2006). Scholars argued that government intervention targeted at
restaurants was unlikely to remedy the obesity epidemic (Marlow and Abdukadirov, 2012)
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and even damage societal welfare (Anderson and Matsa, 2011). Taber et al. (2012) showed
that the ban of sugar-sweetened drinks in schools may have reduced in-school access but not
overall consumption among teenagers. And while governments have continued to tighten up
the rules, food companies have spent large budgets on lobbying against such proposals
(Wilson and Roberts, 2012). Their resistance may be partially due to uncertainties about
consumer acceptance, perceptions of such initiatives, and fear of declining sales.
Concurrently, food companies have addressed health and obesity issues as part of their
CSR. In the broader CSR context, relevant activities have been differentiated into two
categories: institutional and promotional. Institutional CSR initiatives take a more
comprehensive approach and aim for long-term performance implications, while promotional
ones focus more on short-term results such as sales (Pirsch et al., 2007). In their review of
CSR activities, Peloza and Shang (2011) distinguished three different types: philanthropy,
business practices, and product-related initiatives. They propose that, compared to the two
other categories, product-related activities require more commitment and effort from
companies, and are, therefore, better perceived by stakeholders. In the food industry, product
and promotion are the two most used approaches to prime consumers’ interpretations of
companies’ ethical values (Schröder and McEachern, 2005). We, therefore, take this
perspective to further explore the activities undertaken by food companies, as reflected in
their press releases.
Product and promotion can be related to insights from a different body of research, on
cause-brand fit, in the marketing field. Cause-brand fit has been defined as “the degree of
similarity or compatibility that consumers perceive exists between the cause and the brand”
(Lafferty, 2007, p. 448). Previous literature suggests that higher fit enhances the associations
between the brand and the cause, which facilitates the process of integrating information, and
results in more positive consumer responses (e.g., Becker-Olsen and Hill, 2006). Similarly, it
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can be argued that in the food industry a high fit between CSR initiatives and the company’s
core business, i.e., offering food products, should receive favourable responses from
consumers. It seems plausible that product-related initiatives to improve health and obesity
issues have a high fit with the company’s core food business, as these initiatives aim to adapt
the product to become healthier or to introduce healthier alternatives. However, promotion-
related initiatives are often further removed from core business as they mostly involve the
promotion of healthier life styles, including more exercise. These initiatives are not entirely
consistent with selling food that is calorie-dense, and may thus be perceived as low fit. The
literature also shows that these activities might be perceived by consumers as predominantly
based on firms’ egoistic motives, leading to negative responses (Du et al., 2007). For
example, consumers perceive a beer company sponsoring anti-drinking and driving
campaigns as being driven by egoistic motives (Szykman et al., 2004). To explore this
influence of fit, we consider CSR communications from food companies and evaluate
consumer responses by analysing blogs.
CSR COMMUNICATIONS AND BLOGGING
In the context described above, communication about health-related activities is taking place;
namely, companies publish press releases to ‘give sense’ to stakeholders about CSR (Morsing
and Schultz, 2006), including obesity (Schrempf, 2012), and health issues (Maloni and
Brown, 2006). However, CSR communications often suffer from low awareness (Sen et al.,
2006), and how and when they effectively generate favourable reactions is unclear
(Bhattacharya et al., 2009). CSR initiatives in consumer-oriented sectors, including the food
industry, are often communicated via press releases (Holder-Webb et al., 2009), which may
be viewed as promises that companies make to the general public (Harris et al., 2009). This
reflects a more general trend that press releases are not solely targeted to or handled by
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journalists anymore (Ward-Johnson and Guiniven, 2008). Everybody, (potential) consumers
included, has access to the information and can write opinions or report on a news event
(Hennig-Thurau et al., 2010). Virtual CSR dialogues have recently been mentioned as ways in
which companies may generate value (Korschun and Du, 2012). While such direct
interactions with consumers are encouraged, it is largely unknown to what extent press
releases are picked up by online users other than journalists. Moreover, research on how
companies can influence the process of stakeholder involvement and engagement through the
initial message issued has also remained scarce. It is crucial for companies to understand if
and how various users receive this type of information, and social media discussions can give
a clear indication.
Amongst social media platforms, blogs provide rich information and insightful
conversations, and have less privacy issues than other settings (Hookway, 2008). Blogs are
user-generated, not produced by professional media outlets, and can be interactive through
readers’ comments on posts (Stephen and Galak, 2012). Blogging as a phenomenon evolved
from online personal diaries, but has quickly developed into a ‘new medium’ with the power
of agenda setting (Wallsten, 2007). Bloggers, in particular, have been identified as
empowered internet users that can potentially become online pressure groups (Kerr et al.,
2012). Blogging has become prominent, even though other social media has grown rapidly as
well (Hookway, 2008). This popularity has not been fully reflected in empirical academic
research yet. Broader publications have considered the influence of blog(ger)s on politics and
mass communications (e.g. Porter et al., 2007), tourism (e.g. Lin and Huang, 2006),
journalism (e.g. Kaye, 2005) and public relations (Terilli and Arnorsdottir, 2008). Blogs are
considered as a highly effective tool for public relations engagement (Kent, 2008), and the
blogosphere, the totality of all blogs, has been characterised as an arena where executives can
learn what has been said about their companies (Wyld, 2008).
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In business-related research, two types of studies can be distinguished: one in which
blogs serve to collect data, and one in which blogs are examined. Blogs can be categorised
and understood by looking at, for example, bloggers’ profiles and genres of blogging topics,
such as personal diaries, hobbies and interests, and consideration of public affairs issues
(Kent, 2008). Blogs are commonly used in the field of information management to capture the
spread of the Internet and usage. They are generally categorised as positive, negative and
neutral (e.g. Ku et al., 2006) with regard to topics discussed. One study that also considered
press releases used the total number of blog posts as a measure to assess impact on sales,
complementary to the activities in traditional media (Stephen and Galak, 2012). In this article,
we will also use press releases and blog posts, but rather in a different way, i.e., to assess
numbers and types of responses by bloggers and their peculiarities, considering specific types
of CSR initiatives. Hence, it is not only used as data tool but also as a phenomenon that
companies face and need to consider in their communication activities.
Existing research on blogs as object of study, the second category identified above,
has paid attention to motivations for blogging (e.g., Huang et al., 2007), blog categories (e.g.,
Dearstyne, 2005), interactions between bloggers and readers (e.g., Huang et al., 2008) and the
influence of employee bloggers (e.g., Aggarwal et al., 2011). Madsen (2009) suggested
companies to utilise information transparency on the Internet, via corporate blogs, to become
socially responsible. Along this line, Fieseler et al. (2010) took McDonald’s corporate CSR
blog as a starting point to illustrate how blogs can be valuable in CSR communications. They
demonstrated how blogs allow stakeholders, consumers included, to write and give their
views about companies’ CSR initiatives, thus providing direct feedback and offering
possibilities for companies to engage in micro-dialogues with stakeholders. However, the
responses of the general public in the blogosphere to companies’ broader communications on
CSR-related issues have remained underexposed.
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SAMPLE AND METHODOLOGY
The food sector is often related to responsibility for health issues such as the growing obesity
problem (Chou et al., 2008). This study included three sub-sectors of the food industry: quick-
service restaurants, beverage, and food & confectionary companies, which have been at the
centre of the obesity epidemic debate (Kolk et al., 2012; Marshall et al., 2007). Following
industry data (Millward Brown Optimor, 2009; Rogers, 2009), we selected companies that
were either the top two industry leaders in English language countries, or listed in the 100
global brands in 2007-2009. We focused on companies with the highest revenues and brand
values in respective sub-sectors, mainly because prominent companies are more likely to
engage in and communicate about CSR activities (Campbell, 2007; Gray et al., 1995).
Moreover, companies with high brand value tend to attract more attention from consumers,
which increases the likelihood of critical scrutiny (Krishnamurthy and Kucuk, 2009). Based
on these criteria, Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, Starbucks (quick-
service restaurants); Coca-Cola, PepsiCo (beverage companies), and Mars and Nestlé (food
and confectionery companies) were selected. More quick-service restaurants were included
because the top 100 global brand list contained more leading companies in this (sub)sector.
They were also more discussed in general, along with the leading beverage companies, in
terms of responsibility to address the obesity issue.
Press releases of these companies were retrieved from their websites, which usually
listed them chronologically in the news sections. Although food companies are often
associated with health and obesity issues, they hardly use the word ‘obesity’ in their
communications. Instead, they tend to refer to the topic as ‘Nutrition and Well -being’
(McDonald’s), ‘Commitment to Food’ (Burger King) or ‘Active Healthy Living’ (Coca-
Cola). All press releases with information on policies, initiatives, and news about diet, health,
nutrition, and wellbeing were included. The press releases were taken from the websites for
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the period between January 1, 2007 and July 31, 2009. At the time that data collection started,
in 2009, the oldest press releases commonly available on the companies’ websites were from
2007.
After all press releases were identified, the subsequent blog posts were retrieved
online via Google Blog Search. Previous research has confirmed that media coverage for
events is most intensive for a few days after an incident and then declines (Vasterman, 2005).
Earlier blogging studies on political and social incidents found that blog discussions, like
traditional media coverage, lasted for four days (Wallsten, 2007) to the first two weeks after
the initial news events (Thelwall, 2006). Based on these findings, we set our search for blog
posts for the period of up to two weeks after the release was first made public. Several
keywords from the press releases’ title and content were used as criteria to track the relevant
blog posts. For example, on October 1, 2008, KFC published a press release entitled “Yum!
Brands announced U.S. divisions will place calories on all company restaurant menu boards”.
The blog search was subsequently performed to find posts with keywords such as ‘KFC’,
‘Yum!’, ‘calories’ and ‘menu’ that were written between October 1, 2008 and October 15,
2008.
Each blog post was screened for its relevance to assess whether it is indeed related to
the focal press release. Furthermore, only those blogs that had proven traffic and evidence of
readership during the time of investigation were included in the sample, either by counting the
number of visitors or the existence of comments from readers. Comments attached to a blog
post were retained. We also collected the profile of the blog and blogger(s), including, if
available, the characteristics of the blogs, such as the featured topics and the number of
contributors, and whether they were single-authored or multi-authored. Moreover, bloggers’
country of origin, profession, and interests were recorded when that data was published on the
site. Finally, the blog posts were coded according to the sentiments of the overall blog posts;
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positive, neutral or negative (Dickson and Eckman, 2008), in terms of their opinions
regarding the initiatives (see Table 1 for an illustrative example). Blog posts that appeared to
be sponsored by companies, such as providing free samples to give away, were included in
the study. Even though the number of comments these blog posts received may be biased and
considered to be marketing practices, they should still be recorded as they were part of the
blogosphere activities.
Table 1
The analysis of press releases built on earlier research (Pirsch et al., 2007; Peloza and Shang,
2011; Schröder and McEachern, 2005), resulting in two main categories: product-related and
promotion-related press releases as indicated above. Product-related press releases were
further divided in ‘current product modification’ (e.g., reducing salt and calorie density in
chips) and ‘new product introduction’ (e.g., introducing new low-calorie frizzy drinks).
Promotion-related press releases were divided into ‘core promotion activities’ that directly
relate to the product (e.g., a ban on fast-food advertising towards children) and ‘periphery
activities’ (e.g., promoting healthy life styles by encouraging exercising). Furthermore, to
analyse the influence of fit between initiatives and companies on blogger responses, the press
releases were coded as ‘high fit’ or ‘low fit’ based on the definition of “comparability between
the initiatives and the company’s core business” (Lafferty, 2007, p. 448). As explained in the
previous section, the press releases were categorised based on whether the initiatives were
seen as “consistent/inconsistent” and “compatible/incompatible” with companies’ core
business. When initiatives were considered to be consistent and compatible in light of
companies’ core business, they were coded as “high fit”.
Two coders were trained to analyse the category of press releases and blog posts,
including one independent researcher who was not involved in the coding development, and
one of the co-authors of the paper. We also trained two coders to analyse the fit level. These
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two had not been involved in the coding development and the coding of the category of press
releases and blog posts. For both procedures, coders undertook the coding on the entire set of
data separately and any disagreements were addressed at the end through discussion (as in
Kerr et al., 2012). To ensure reliability of the result, the inter-rater reliabilities of the encoded
blogs and press releases were tested. Agreement between the coders on the valence of the
blogs, categories and fit level of the press releases was 94%, 95% and 95% respectively,
while Cohen’s Kappa was 0.91, 0.92, and 0.86 respectively. Based on previous research, this
level of inter-coder reliability was deemed sufficient (Desai, 2011; Kolbe and Burnett, 1991).
Chi-square analysis was conducted to analyse the relationships between press release
categories and the fit level.
FINDINGS
We start by addressing the first research question mentioned in the introduction, related to the
types of health-related initiatives communicated by the food companies. Overall, the 10
investigated companies published 165 relevant press releases during the research time frame,
of which 67 generated in total 815 responses from bloggers, and 6,203 subsequent comments.
Table 2 shows a detailed distribution of the press releases and accompanying blog posts over
the 10 companies. It should be noted that there is one press release issued by YUM! Brands!,
the company that owns both KFC and Pizza Hut, that was identical on both websites.
Interestingly, when bloggers discussed the policy, they targeted KFC rather than Pizza Hut.
We therefore counted the blog posts for this particular press release in the KFC figures, and
did the same for the press release itself; there were thus 165 different press releases in total
(this would have been 166 if the identical one had been included twice).
Table 2
Among the 165 press releases, each category and sub-category was represented, as the
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following examples show. PepsiCo announced on 4 February 2009 to cut the sodium level of
current products under its crisps brand Walkers, which is product-related and a modification
of the current product. An example of a new product introduction is Nestlé’s press release
from 15 July 2009 that announced the introduction of new candy, cranberry RAISINETS,
targeted at health-conscious consumers. Promotion related to core product activities is Mars’
2008 announcement to restrict communication activities for kids under the age of 12. An
example of periphery promotion is Coca-Cola’s press release about the joint work of its
foundation with the government of the US state of Alabama to promote summer activities and
an education programme for youth.
To give an indication of the level of activity in the blogosphere, we calculated the
average number of blog posts per press release for each company, and did the same for
comments (see last columns in Table 2). For blog posts, this overall amounted to 12.1, and for
comments to 92.6 per press release that generated a response. Companies with more press
releases did not necessarily generate more responses in the blogosphere. For example, in two
and a half years’ time, the two leading beverage companies, Coca-Cola and especially
PepsiCo, sent out considerably more press releases than the others, but that did not lead to
higher response rates among bloggers.
To answer our second research question, we analysed blogger responses in more
detail. Table 3 shows a detailed distribution of the press releases and accompanying blog
posts over the categories. Of the 165 press releases, contrary to the general belief, we found
that the product-related ones accounted for 64%, with new product introductions as highest
within the category, while the rest was promotion-related. However, companies did have
more periphery promotion-related CSR initiatives (25% of the overall press releases) than the
ones concerning current product modification (17% of the overall press releases). Overall,
bloggers responded to 67 (41%) of the total press releases, with product extension generating
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most discussion. Product-related press releases had a higher response rate (47%) than the
promotion-related ones (28%).
Table 3
Similarly, to indicate the level of popularity for each topic in the blogosphere, we
calculated the average number of blog posts and comments per press release for each category
(see last columns in Table 3). Product-related press releases generated the most ‘buzz’ for
both blog posts and comments, whereas core promotion generated the least in comments and
periphery promotion generated the least in blog posts. Even if we excluded the blog posts that
were blog marketing posts (e.g. giving free samples), the average number of comments on a
blog post was still higher when it dealt with product modification rather than periphery
promotion. Table 4 gives the distribution between press releases categories and fit levels. It
shows that 129 press releases (78.2%) were coded as high fit, and 36 (21.8%) as low fit.
Product-related initiatives have a higher proportion of high-fit press releases, while
promotion-related ones had a more balanced distribution (X2=19.2, df=1, p<0.001). Upon
further analysis of the various subcategories, we found that press releases on core promotions
were mostly high fit, while periphery promotions appeared to be the only one with equal high-
fit and low-fit press releases (X2=30.8, df=3, p<0.001). This indicates that, depending on the
congruence between the activities and the company’s core business, promotional activities
could be high fit as well.
Table 4
We also explored blog posts’ sentiments, which address the third research question posed in
the introduction. In general, product-related press releases generated more positive responses
(47.2%) than negative ones (33%). Conversely, promotion-related press releases led to more
negative reactions (44.1%) than positive ones (38.1%). As expected, high-fit press releases
generated more positive responses (47.2%) than negative ones (33.6%), while low-fit press
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releases generated more negative responses (42.7%) than positive ones (37.3%). Table 5 lists
the detailed distribution of the blog post sentiments per category and fit level, which shows
interesting differences within categories. While product extension reflected the overall
category pattern of more positive responses for high fit and more negative responses for low
fit, current product modification actually led to more negative responses for high fit and more
positive responses in the case of low fit. And while periphery promotion led to more negative
reactions in the low-fit condition, it had slightly more neutral responses when fit was high.
Core promotions generated comparable percentages of positive and negative responses in case
of high-fit press releases, but very limited observations for drawing meaningful conclusions
for the low-fit condition.
Table 5
Finally, when it comes to the bloggers who were active, a considerable variety can be seen.
The 815 blog posts were published on 721 unique blogs; the overwhelming majority of
bloggers (93%) posted one relevant post in reaction to a press release. 7% of the bloggers (53
in total) reacted to more than one press release and altogether wrote 147 out of the 815 blog
posts. Of these 53 bloggers, 40 reacted to various press releases from different companies,
while 13 responded to just one specific company, Starbucks. 11 out of these 13 bloggers
responded to only 2 press releases, and 2 bloggers to 3 and 7 press releases. Starbucks had
more bloggers who repeatedly responded to more than one of their press releases (254 blogs
came from 232 bloggers). For other companies that also had bloggers with more than one post
per company (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, KFC and Pizza Hut) this amounted to just a few
‘interested’ bloggers.
Looking at the bloggers’ profiles, the overwhelming majority (86%) appeared to be
from the US, a small percentage from the UK (8%) or other countries (3%), while the origin
of the rest (3%) could not be identified. Only a limited percentage of bloggers (14%) revealed
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details of their profession, with a considerable spread over dieticians, doctors, journalists,
business specialists, and parents, mostly mothers. The type of blogs on which reactions were
posted showed a large variety. This ranged from daily updates (mostly personal blogs; 32% of
total), healthy living (diet, fitness, nutrition; 27%), food and drinks (product and restaurant
reviews, focusing on taste and flavour; 16%), to business-oriented (17%). This latter category
discussed press releases from a marketing or strategic perspective, e.g. characterising the
launch of a new diet product as a “smart strategic move tapped into the health market”. There
were a few other small categories such as topic-specific blogs on sustainability and ethical
consumption, or the politics of food and other social issues, as well as a limited percentage
that could not be clearly identified.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
Health issues in general and obesity in particular have been of growing concern for the public,
policy-makers, and also for companies. In this article, we examined responses in the
blogosphere to press releases by food companies on health-related issues. While it is just a
first study and there are still many issues that deserve follow-up research, the findings give
insights into the scale of the phenomenon, in terms of numbers of press releases, blog posts
and comments in the blogosphere, peculiarities of bloggers, and responses and sentiments.
Regarding the research questions we wanted to answer, the analysis shows that companies
communicated more product-related initiatives than promotion-related ones, with the former
receiving more discussions among bloggers than the latter. While it is difficult to pinpoint a
particular blogger community or blogger type exclusively involved in discussing health issues
online, product-related press releases were generally perceived more favourably than the
promotion-related ones, which can be partially explained by the fit between companies’ core
business and the initiatives. This final section will further reflect on the study and its findings,
18
and discuss implications, limitations and possible avenues for further research.
Communication and Bloggers
The main challenge of CSR communication is to generate awareness; and the key peril of
social media and thus the potential risk for companies lies in the uncontrollability of
information flows as Internet users can directly state their opinions about an issue (Capriotti,
2011), without companies’ consent or guidance. Our study shows that bloggers indeed pick
up information from companies and directly respond to it in the blogosphere. While not all
press releases have generated equal awareness, there was substantial buzz around the topic.
This is in line with Wright and Hinson (2008) who found that corporate announcements are
often picked up online and discussed by others than only professional journalists.
It is important for companies to realise that the uncontrolled information flow occurs
anyway and not only when companies proactively engage in social media (Korschun and Du,
2012). A more traditional instrument, such as a press release, can also reach social media and
generate considerable discussions online. In that sense, it is not an issue of either/or in terms
of addressing those active on social media, but the more common older approaches can
continue to play a role as well. Online listening can be a useful method for understanding the
debate about the company and its health-related activities and to detect potential challenges.
Regarding types of bloggers, we found a large presence of bloggers from the US. This
may be due to the fact that most companies originate from the US and that press releases were
in English. It has also been noted that Americans are in general more active in the
blogosphere (Sobel, 2010). There may have been an influence of media attention to health and
obesity issues in the US as well. Saguy et al. (2010), who compared news reporting on this
topic in the US and France in the period between 1995 and 2005, found higher levels of
attention in US newspapers, and also more discussion on individual choices and solutions.
19
More importantly, however, we found that blog posts originated from many different
bloggers, i.e., the 815 posts were published on 721 unique blogs, written by bloggers that
could not easily be put in one specific category. This means that, while many people seem to
be interested in engaging about the topic, it is rather difficult to pinpoint who they are exactly.
Although much research has focused on particular groups of bloggers (Fieseler et al., 2010),
our study suggests that ‘non-specific’ Internet users also voiced their opinions and can be
influential. They express an interest in a particular press release rather than consistently
engaging in blogging about health-related issues. This group of random bloggers generated
most of the buzz found on the Internet in response to the press releases studied.
While blogs generate helpful knowledge for companies from a large variety of
potential consumers from different origins, it is rather difficult to use blogs to identify key
stakeholder groups to engage in micro-dialogues with them. This latter approach was
recommended by Fieseler et al. (2010) based on their study on corporate blogs, so that
companies could receive input on, for example, CSR initiatives. Korschun and Du (2012) also
suggest to identify “the community of dialog participants” to maximize the value of CSR
virtual communications. However, this may not be that valid when applied to the blogosphere
in general, as done in this study. The actual bloggers might not be health-conscious bloggers
who are monitoring companies’ health and obesity policies, but in fact be individuals who are
discussing whatever they like to talk about.
As shown by Kozinets et al. (2010), bloggers may strongly vary in their background
and motives to blog about a particular topic. This means that expectations for a clear CSR
voice from people active on this social media platform may be too much, as opinions and
expertise are all over the place. These results are different from what has been suggested by
previous studies. Du et al. (2010) suggested that CSR communication is more effective when
targeted at activists, who believe that companies should engage in CSR, rather than at
20
‘disbelievers’ who think that companies should primarily focus on their shareholders. Our
study suggests that the effectiveness of the CSR communication outreach is not different for
CSR activists and disbelievers. Although the general public may not proactively seek CSR
information about a company (Dawkins, 2004), when they come across the information, they
can still make their voice heard via online platforms.
Types of Press Releases and Blogger Responses
Although companies communicated more product-related CSR initiatives than promotion-
related ones, those that might really change their business, i.e., modification of core products,
were in a minority, compared to peripheral activities. This reflects public perceptions of
companies trying to shift responsibilities toward consumers by offering more product options
and encouraging a healthy life style, instead of taking direct (corporate) responsibility
themselves. We also found that promotion-related campaigns received mainly negative
discussions, whereas product-related ones were perceived positively. These findings are in
line with Pirsch et al. (2007) who suggested that consumers are more cynical if initiatives do
not relate to core business. However, different from impressions that product-related
initiatives tend to be overlooked compared to promotion-related ones, the findings suggest
that product-related press releases generated more discussions than promotion-related ones.
This may be particularly the case in the food industry because the product itself is not only the
contact point with consumers but also at the root of the health and obesity issue, which could
therefore be more interesting to talk about.
Furthermore, our results indicate, as expected, that high-fit press releases generated
more positive responses compared to the low-fit ones. However, high-fit press releases still
generated negative responses, even though proportionally less than in case of low fit. This
suggests that perceptions of press releases, while reflecting reactions amongst bloggers, could
21
not only be explained by the level of fit. Taken together with the content of press releases, we
found that modification of the current product, a high-fit activity, resulted in negative buzz,
which differs from what would be expected on the basis of earlier research on company-cause
fit in the literature on marketing and social alliances. This might be caused by what we call a
‘controversial fit’; the adaptation of products in the food industry might underscore
consumers’ ideas that the original products were unhealthy.
These negative responses toward product modification highlight the dilemmas of
implementing CSR initiatives when there is a fundamental conflict between expected
responsibilities and companies’ core business of providing food products that are usually
calorie-dense. Also, since some consumers are already sceptical about healthy and diet food
(Hamilton et al., 2000), it may be more challenging to offer the same product and to convince
consumers that the modified version is better, than to offer an alternative to attract new
customers and retain current ones. The difficulty of adapting existing products has been
demonstrated before, as product modification has been found to account for the highest rate of
failures (Rochford and Rudelius, 1997). Moreover, introducing new products, also a high-fit
activity, is received positively. It could be that bloggers directly react to the item as a new
healthy food product without being reminded of the negative consequences of the original
product, i.e., obesity. We also found that core promotional activities led to comparable
percentages of positive and negative responses for high-fit press releases (for low fit, the
number of observations was too limited). Concurrently, periphery promotional activities
generated more negative buzz regardless of the fit level, but more when press releases were
low fit than in case of high fit. This suggests that consumers generally had more negative
perceptions toward promotional activities, which could only partially be explained by fit
levels. A high level of fit may offset some negative responses but seems insufficient to result
in positive reactions. Future research is needed to confirm these initial findings and to study
22
the underlying processes to further explain mechanisms that influence consumer perceptions
toward CSR communications.
Limitations and Future Research
The study reported in this article obviously had limitations in view of its exploratory nature,
and there are several issues that deserve follow-up research to better understand what
influences consumers’ responses. Specifically, previous research on obesity found positive
links between responsibility attributions and support for (self)regulation, such as restrictions
on food marketing (Oliver and Lee, 2005). When coding the data according to the categories
used for this study, we also came across a statement that pointed in that direction, such as
criticism on food companies’ initiative to stop advertising to kids because parents were seen
to be the ones taking responsibility for children’s diets: “…parents need to start acting like
what you are called, PARENTS!!!...”. Similarly, consumers who see obesity as a personal
responsibility may favour initiatives that would provide more options by introducing new
products rather than limiting their options by modifying current products. For instance, a
blogger wrote in reaction to Starbucks’ announcement to only use reduced fat milk in its
coffee drinks: “Let me just say that I drink 1% in my own home, but when I go out to "treat"
myself that should be exactly what it is, a treat. [...] when I enjoy a latte I want the real deal”.
Such self-interest may induce a perception that a company compromised one’s ‘right’ to
enjoy a product for other people’s personal issues. These examples suggest that responsibility
attributions may influence bloggers’ responses towards press releases, which is worth further
study.
This also applies to an additional aspect that we observed in the coding process, which
is that responsibility attributions revealed by bloggers in their posts appeared to be influenced
by the topics of the press releases. Their contents seemed to suggest or remind the readers of
23
different parties that bear responsibility for causing/solving obesity. For example, none of the
bloggers mentioned parents or governments in response to Starbucks’ initiative, whereas these
two parties were brought up in blogger responses to communications by PepsiCo and Burger
King about (self)restrictions on their own promotional activities. This observation suggests
that responses are not only influenced by the bloggers’ individual beliefs of responsibility, but
also by different informational cues in press releases. It highlights the complexity of
responsibility attributions, especially in the context of CSR communications. In the same
vein, we observed that bloggers often did not mention responsibility attributions in their posts.
Follow-up research using questionnaires and/or an experimental design could help to shed
further light on (causal) relationships between bloggers’ responsibility attributions and their
perceptions towards compnay initiatives, which could not be uncovered through the research
approach that we followed. Moreover, it would be worthwile to further investigate the
interplay between initiatives and consumer perceptions, also considering different
interpretations of fit levels based on consumers’ understanding of companies’ core business,
image, and target markets.
In addition, from a CSR communication viewpoint, it would be interesting to study
blogger responses towards a company’s proactive social media strategy (e.g., when it starts
the debate about a health-related product change). This type of communication gives
companies more control as they can (partly) steer the direction of the debate and transform
CSR communication from a one-way into a two-way interactive process (Jones et al., 2009).
For a more comprehensive picture, it would be helpful to also include other platforms, such as
twitter, and other CSR issues, even beyond the social media to study the interplay with
traditional mass media. As outcomes of online discussions are difficult to predict and may be
negative, it would be interesting as well to understand to what extent discussions online
attract mass media attention and influence views of internet users. Finally, while our study
24
covered a longer time frame than others by analysing 2.5 years, an extension to more and later
years could add value as well. This article, thus, only presents a first step towards a better
understanding of the (potential) role of social media in responsible business by contributing
insights from one type of online reactions about a specific set of issues faced by companies
for which CSR concerns directly relate to their core activities.
NOTES
1 See e.g. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/cbd21108-66c1-11e2-a83f-
00144feab49a.html#axzz2LwE11qyi (date accessed 28/02/2013).
2 See e.g. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/07/19/opinion/olympic-sponsorship-clark (date accessed
28/02/2013). We thank one of the reviewers for this suggestion.
25
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33
TABLES
Table1.Examplesofcodedblogposts
BlogpostsinresponsetoBurgerKing’spressreleasesonincludingappleslidesinkids’menuSentiments
ascoded
“Greatnews!BurgerKingplanstosellappleslicesthatlooklikeFrenchfries.TheAssociatedPressisall
overthisstrokeofmarketinggenius.Take alook:...[directquotefromthepressrelease]...”
Positive
“BurgerKinghasjumpedonthehealthywagon,andisnowgoingtoofferahealthierKids’Mealinits
restaurants.ThemealwillincludeflamebroiledChickenTenders,applescuttoresemblethickcut
frenchfriesandlowfatmilk…[directquotefromthepressrelease]...
Neutral(only
describesthe
newswithout
personal
opinion)
“BurgerKingannouncedtodaythatthey'regoingtoofferhealthierfoodforkidsthisfall.Theirnew
"KidsMeal"willofferlowfatmilk,flamebroiledchickenstrips,and"AppleFries"—redapplessliced
(viaBK'spatentedcuttingprocess)andpackaged,youguessedit,tolooklikefries.Although,leaveitto
BurgerKingtoleaveoutthemostnutritiouspartoftheapple—theskin.…
BurgerKing'sattempttoprovidehealthierfoodcouldbeintheinterestofpublichealth(orpressure?),
buttomeitsoundslikejustanothermarketingploywhichisparforthecourseforthefastfood
industrythesedays.Butwhat'sBKuptowiththeseapplefries?Aretheyshapedlikefriestotrick
childrenintoeatingthem,ortohavekidsassociatehealthinesswithfrenchfries?Whynotjustgive
thekidsawholeapple,skinandall?
Afterall,arecentWashingtonPostsurveyofDCfourthgradersshowedthatkidsactuallydolikefruit.
Minimallyprocessedmandarinorangesegments,applesauce,andpineapplereceiveashighakid's
reviewasprocessed,sweetenedtreats.ButIguesskidscan'thaveittheirwayatBurgerKing.”
Negative
Table2.Anoverviewofpressreleasesandrelatedblogresponsesforeachcompany
Company
name
Number
ofpress
releases
Press
releases
without
blogger
responses
(No.and
%)*
Press
releases
with
blogger
responses
(No.and
%)*
Number
of
responses
from
bloggers
Average
numberof
blogposts
perpress
release
with
response
Numberof
comments
onblog
posts
Average
numberof
comments
perpress
releasewith
blogger
response
BurgerKing115(45%)6(55%)213.5233a38.8a
McDonald’s105(50%)5(50%)428.4256b251.0b
KFC83(38%)5(63%)12024.031563.0
PizzaHut40(0%)d3(75%)d4715.7959c319.7c
Subway43(75%)1(25%)66.01212.0
Starbucks122(17%)10(83%)25425.42680268.0
CocaCola2916(55%)13(45%) 131 10.1 63648.9
PepsiCo5740(70%)17(30%)1518.9101159.4
Mars1311(85%)2(15%)189.02110.5
Nestlé1813(72%)5(28%)255.08016.0
Total165d98(61%)d67(41%)d81512.16203e92.6
*percentagesdonotalwaysaddupto100duetorounding;aincluding110commentson1marketingblogpost;if
excluded,numberinlastcolumnwouldhavebeen20.5;bincluding56commentson1blogmarketingpost;if
excluded,numberinlastcolumnwouldhavebeen40.0;cincluding662commentson3blogmarketingpost;if
excluded,numberinlastcolumnwouldhavebeen99.0;donepressreleasewasissuedunderYUM!Brands!,the
mothercorporationofbothKFCandPizzaHut;whenbloggersdiscussedthepressreleasetheyfocusedonKFC,andit
herethereforebeenincludedthere;eincluding828commentsreactingtoblogmarketingposts.
34
Table3.Anoverviewofpressreleasesandrelatedblogresponsesforeachcategory
PressreleasecategoryNumber
ofpress
releases
Press
releases
with
blogger
responses
(No.and
%)
Number
of
responses
from
bloggers
Average
numberof
blogposts
perpress
release
with
response
Numberof
comments
onblog
posts
Average
numberof
comments
perpress
releasewith
blogger
response
Product
Current
product
modification
2811(39%)14012.71486135.1
Newproduct
introduction7839(50%)55714.34255a109.1
Subtotal10650(47%)69713.95741
b
114.8
Promotion
Core
promotions187(39%)547.710915.6
Periphery
promotions4210(24%)646.4353c35.3
Subtotal6017(28%)1186.946227.2
Total16567(41%)81512.26203d92.6
aincluding772commentson4marketingposts;ifexcluded,numberinlastcolumnwouldhavebeen89.3;bincluding
772commentson4marketingposts;ifexcluded,numberinlastcolumnwouldhavebeen99.38;cincluding56
commentson1marketingposts;ifexcluded,numberinlastcolumnwouldhavebeen29.7;dincluding828comments
on5marketingposts;ifexcluded,numberinlastcolumnwouldhavebeen80.2.
Table4Anoverviewofcategoriesofpressreleaseandcompanyinitiativefit
Pressreleasetopic
Total
ProductPromotion
CurrentProduct
modification
Newproduct
introduction
SubtotalCore
promotions
Periphery
promotions
Subtotal
Company
InitiativeFit
High217394142135129
Low75123212436
Total1778106284259165
Table5Distributionofblogposts’sentimentspercategoryandfitlevel
PressreleasecategoryTotalnumber
ofblogposts
Sentimentsofblogposts(in%)*
Positive NeutralNegative
Highfit
Product
Currentproduct
modification12436.316.147.6
Newproduct
introduction53750.820.129.2
Promotion
Corepromotions5147.17.845.1
Periphery
promotions2825.039.335.7
Subtotal74047.219.333.6
Lowfit
Product
Currentproduct
modification1643.837.518.8
Newproduct
introduction2035.025.040.0
Promotion
Corepromotions333.30.066.7
Periphery
promotions3636.111.152.8
Subtotal7537.320.042.7
Total81545.919.534.6
*percentagesdonotalwaysaddupto100duetorounding
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