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Misuse of the term 'stakeholder' in public relations
journal contributionposted on 2006-01-01, 00:00 authored by Stephen Mackey
This article queries the relatively recent adoption of the term 'stakeholder', borrowed from the UK political and the US business management spheres, in public relations academic writing. The article concludes that these spheres use the term in a normative or ideological manner that has worrying implications. The term frames people as having a pre-existing relationship with the governments or business organisations which name them as such. This process of incorporation prejudges and potentially obscures the real relations of groups of people vis-à-vis governments and business organisations which they may wish to have nothing to do with. An argument is mounted for the defence of the term 'publics'. It is pointed out that a key originator of stakeholder theory opposes the notion of 'publics' as closer to a notion of an uncontrolled audience. The article argues that the notion of 'publics' is more fitting than the notion of 'stakeholders' if public relations is about acknowledging this uncontrollability, and to do with advising organisations about their positioning in the democratic milieu. On the other hand, the notion 'stakeholders' may be the right one if public relations is simply aimed at immediately shaping people's behaviour, irrespective of longer term and wider political implications.