Is stakeholder relations actually public relations?

Is it a matter of semantics, or the latest euphemism for PR—or is there a true distinction between the practices?


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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.” 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 that many assume involves media relations alone or, worse, as a practice that is primarily characterized by spin and broadcast communication.

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

  • Involving non-organizational stakeholders in organizational decision making processes;
  • Listening to organizational stakeholders;
  • Stakeholders influencing organizational decision making;
  • Forming partnerships between an organization 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 skeptical 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 the two-way symmetrical model. This is important as the academic examination of disciplines gives it a rigor 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 organizations, 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 reason for this is that PR is a huge money-making industry for consultancies, and it would take such a concerted global partnership to achieve this outcome that it doesn’t seem feasible.

Craig Pierce is the head of Craig Pierce Strategic Communication. A version of this post first appeared on Public Relations and Managing Reputation.

Topics: PR

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