Stakeholder relations IS public relations

I’ve been driven to distraction of late by yet another cunning, self-hating term that public relations has come up for itself to hide, no doubt, the distaste it feels, and it feels non-PR people similarly feel, for the term ‘public relations’ itself. The term is ‘stakeholder relations’.

It is bone wearyingly ironic that the public relations discipline feels the need to cloak itself in names that differentiate it from a practice many assume involves media relations alone or, worse, as a practice that is primarily characterised by spin and monologic, broadcast communication.

If you go to the Wikipedia definition of stakeholder relations (or engagement – same difference), you will find it defines the field with the following notions:

  • Involving non-organisational stakeholders in organisational decision making processes
  • Listening to organisational stakeholders
  • Stakeholders influencing organisational decision making
  • Forming partnerships between an organisation and its stakeholders.

This is nothing more than a manifestation of the primary theory that underpins and shapes best practice public relations, that of two-way symmetrical communication.

Corporate social responsibility is public relations
I have a similar gripe about nomenclature with corporate social responsibility (CSR). Much of the work that takes place under this banner is, similarly, based on the two-way symmetrical communication model. I suspect CSR grew out of public relations and has since been working to undermine the potency of PR as a strategic business management discipline.

The importance of theory to communication
I am highly sceptical that either stakeholder relations or CSR has the depth of academic and theoretical discussion underpinning them that public relations has, especially in the context of two-way symmetrical. This is important as the academic examination of disciplines gives it a rigour and power that is otherwise denied it.

Stakeholder relations in practice
In many instances, stakeholder relations in practice seems to have a heavy emphasis on community consultation. There is nothing wrong with this, but I wonder if this is another reason for the generation and increasing application of the term – it’s being used to further differentiate community relations from public relations (i.e. in this context, the evil media relations and spinning falsehoods).

I know that in some organisations, at least, stakeholder relations operates in its own discrete area, separate from corporate communication. As to which area serves which – well, that’s an interesting one…

Rebranding public relations
Discussions on the rebranding of public relations have been going on for longer than any of us would care to remember. But the profession clearly doesn’t have the stomach for the battle and I personally can’t see it changing brand names.

One of the reasons for this is that PR is a huge money making industry for consultancies and it would take such a concerted partnership across the world to achieve this outcome it doesn’t seem feasible.

This post is an edited version of an article published by Craig Pearce on 4 July 2012.

The truth about public relations, says Craig Pearce, is that it takes short-term pain to achieve long-term gain. The principal of Craig Pearce Strategic Communication, he applies academic rigour and creativity – not spin! – to create mutual change for mutual benefit. His PR blog has been recognised as one of Australia’s 25 best business blogs.

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