Eric Koper: avoiding the sliding path from from narcisism to onanism.- Fraser Likely: how stakeholders change organizations – Benita Steyn: on Ed Freeman and disintermediation.

I am grateful to the many scholars, professionals and students who have generously contributed to the ongoing debate on institutionalizing public relations, at the wake of the upcoming Euprera Congress (final program is first class and on the way to publication…), and would like to encourage further thoughts and elaboration on a conceptualization which, at this point, appears to me even more necessary than before we began our debate.

I open here a new post to jump on the opportunity of three recent acute comments which sharply roused in me a need to better explain myself (first of all, to my own self..) and they have to do with:

°a ‘generic’ risk of navel gazing expressed by Eric Koper from his outpost in Nigeria (…Eric…if you believe my remarks are worth commenting, please also update our readers on your recent and fascinating activities, I am sure they would be interested);

°a ‘how can we track how stakeholders change the organization’ issue raised by Fraser Likely from Canada, whose inquisitive mind works like a razor, based on profound knowledge and experience


°a quick clarification of identities, but more importantly, a description of the concept of disintermediation required by Benita Steyn who, with my great interest and I hope your general satisfaction, has taken the issue really to heart and constantly brings us expertise and knowledge from a Southern African perspective.

Eric says:

……However, it’s interesting that there still seems to be a need to further legitimize, by name of “institutionalize”, that what is practiced in so many forms, ways, shapes, levels, etc.
I am concerned that the theoretical development of the field is trapped in an ever increasing self-assessment and valuation in an almost narcistic way.
This description of the function is not that important, a bus-driver drives a bus, simple; what is of interest is the quality of the trip and if you reached your destination.
I would argue that research needs to engage in a more critical understanding of the dynamics and mechanisms that help to achieve behavioural changes in individuals, groups and society at large.
This should go beyond plain evaluations of successful behavioural change campaigns and try to focus on underlying principles that are more replicable in nature.
Indeed, maybe this is an argument for a more empirical scientific approach towards body of knowledge development.
I decided to use some provocative language as it is fundamentally known that this would result in some behavioural response, so I am looking forward to equally critical comments as to help the development of the essential body of knowledge.

Thank you for your provocative and highly appreciated remarks.
In my view the debate on institutionalization has to do precisely with the end of what you describe (and I agree..) as a narcistic era for our scholarly community.
Institutionalization has happened in the market place, is a fact of life (like it or not), and now needs to be properly nurtured and guided in order to ensure that, following your metaphore, the bus driver be aware of his role, of new vehicles and practices, gets rid of the older and more polluting ones, uses new contraptions to get to destination more effectively, while ensuring a safe, punctual, pleasant and affordable travel to passengers.
You yourself cite one highly relevant example..
You say:
quote research needs to engage in a more critical understanding of the dynamics and mechanisms that help to achieve behavioural changes in individuals, groups and society at large.unquote

This is one HUGE, GIGANTIC issue!

How common amongst us is the understanding that of every 100 euro we invest in qualil/quanti opinion research today, we should invest at least double that sum in quali/quanti behavioural research?

And that the larger part of those resources should probably be in non traditional and non consolidated market driven assessments of relationships between actual behaviours, as well as in socio-cultural, economic, antropologic and environmental assessments driven by the ever so necessary issues management approaches?

And this, if not for others, at least for the simple reason that over the last ten/fifteen years opinions fail much more than before to become behaviours, and traditional research is less and less reliable as I tried to argue some time ago here in a post?

I recently had the privilege of a long personal conversation with the international marketing director of one of the worlds largest beverage companies and he confessed his personal anguish over these issues.

Having said this, yet it is also essential that the bus driver attract passengers who travel, otherwise even more than navel gazing, bus driving becomes onanistic….
and this implies that the best part of our community engage in a strong advocacy effort to reassure its stakeholders (in business, in society, in the media) that institutionalization is here (admittedly, leopard skin-like…but what isn’t?), that there is a huge value out there for those who invest competently in public relations, that this value enriches organizations, stakeholder publics and society, is measurable and can be readily identified by a, b and c (tbc…. for fear of opening another Pandora..).

And this effort, in my view cannot wait another day, another month, another conference, another blog, another year.

So, on the one hand you define, and I agree, an agenda for research; while on the other I advocate a parallel agenda for practice and education. To me, they are in no way at odds…

Fraser says:

To me, the legacy of Jim Grunig’s (et al) work is the us/them dichotomy.
That is, we in PR/C like to talk about what we do to and with them. Them being stakeholders and publics (Benita got it right) and do to and with being a relationship, a communication, a behaviour change.
We change them. (As Benita discussed, our language is issues MANAGEMENT, stakeholder MANAGEMENT.)

But, Jim also talked about us. The concept of a different dominant coalition depending on the issue, action, etc. where there are also relationships, communication and behaviour change – influenced from the outside.
They change us.
Unfortunately, a role for PR/C hasn’t been thoroughly explored, by Jim or by others.

This role is more than traditional roles such as listening in or environmental scanning (see the issues management literature of the 1970s), it is more than intelligence at decision-making time (see the abundant literature in PR about being at the table and contributing to strategic – deliberate – planning).
It is more than internal comms being a contributor to organizational change management processes and programs.
Surely it is more than MANAGING a relationship (and for the life of me, I don’t know how PR/C actually could ever manage a sustained relationship with any stakeholder or public group).

In summary, if PR/C is ever to be truly institutionalized, I would think that we need to go further than we have in determining a role for PR/C regarding “they change us.”

In the literature of management the analysis of how the environment changes organizations is probably more intense and consolidated than that on how organizations change the environment.

Yet, you are correct in stating that little, if any, of this analysis has been adequately applied to understand (if I adequately interpret your point..) if, how , at which levels, and how much behaviours of specific stakeholder publics effectively change the organization; and if, how, at which levels, and how those changes -in turn- allow the organization to reach a more balanced symmetrical relationship with the other subject and, finally, how all these changes impact on the public interest.

If this premise is correct, I believe -and in my management consultancy Methodos, besides having excellent analytical minds, we are also blessed by being owned by an entrepreneur who also owns Italy’s most reputed social and market research company Doxa and strongly encourages intellectual synergy and innovative threads of thought- we are constantly experimenting a punctual identification of priority issues related to priority organizational objectives and, for each, of priority stakeholder publics -along the definition I indicated in my previous response to Benita which provoked your comment.

In parallel, we relate these analysis to social, cultural, economic developments in the environment.

More so, we are closely moving towards a systematic operational approach to what many of us like to call the (highly dynamic) public relations infrastructure of a given territory, which is the specific applications side of the coin of the generic principles and specific applications paradigm.

A paradigm I hope -the sooner… the better- might be adopted by the global public relations community as a general accepted framework: result of a constant, haphazard, unplanned elaboration, beautifully accelerated and exalted also by an always more intense use of social media, which has now been going on for some twenty years by scholars and professionals from Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, Australasia and, also,,,North America.

To give a sample of our work at Methodos:

in assistance of a durable goods manufacturer, intensely involved in a major cultural and technical overhaul of one of its plants, our client, for various rational, economic and social reasons, had planned to displace less than ten percent of its workforce, but was clearly aware that such decision would disrupt the whole overhaul exercise, which had entailed major investments.

A sophisticated, but explicit, listening exercise analysing all possible alternative options was undertaken, involving not only clustered internal stakeholder publics, but also carefully clustered external stakeholder publics: thus, yes! indirectly, but certainly not under cover, the entire community fully understood what was at stake, whichever option would be selected, and the client also and most importantly fully understood the potential consequences of each.

The client’s final decision was to identify a nearby location where, on their own will, the ‘to be displaced’ group agreed to dislocate and to serve the group by supplying logistic services.

This happened some months ago and the solution is still working well, proving to sceptics that it was not only an alibi, temporary solution…

Thus the company had changed its intentions, the stakeholder publics significantly contributed to that change not by asking for mercy but by explaining very clearly the consequences of those intentions,, and the whole change management project greatly improved its overall effectiveness by this move.

I well imagine all the questions on the how and why and the when of everything, like in any other delicate case. But if a case is not delicate then it is not a case.

Other example:
by adopting mostly anthropologic analysis for a reputed food manufacturer in the process of a complex ownership generation passage, we involved not only the actual employee clusters, but, in separate clusters, their families, the local community, as well as suppliers and distributors in voicing their concerns and supplying their expectancies.

The changes in the organization induced, directly and indirectly, by this effort are forceful and visible.

I very much believe that by integrating priority issues and stakeholder identification processes along the lines I tried to explain in my earlier response to Benita which raised your comment, you can operate on all levels of environmental scanning, issue analysis; participant observation, focus groups, quali and quantitative and other paraphernalia.

Yes, Fraser, you can not only understand the change stakeholder publics expect from the organization, but also the change that stakeholder publics produce on the organization; and yes, you can evaluate and measure both, if and when of course the exercise is constant.


1. you write
…. If you are thinking about Milton Friedman….

The Edward Freeman we both refer to, in his most recent book, Managing for Stakeholders, identifies four different approaches to stakeholder management, and one of them he defines as the public relations approach and writes (page 16):
quote executives decide on the company story and use strategy like image advertising, communicating with opinion leaders, and so on to get the story known…unquote

and this was not 1984 but 2007!

But, you add, one reads much worse and you are right!

However this has very little to do with the public relations we discuss about in this blog…or am I mistaken?

What I meant to say about Freeman is that only a public relator understands the enormous operational value of segmenting stakeholder publics.
If one is aware and interested ( it is a pull relationship.
If one is interested if made aware (i.e. potential) all I need is a gentle nudge of info and he becomes active.
If one is an issue influencer I will make sure he gets my side of the story and con-vince him to consider it (push).
If one is an opinion leader I want him to become active…etc…
each of these profiles require quite different, separate and personalized communication approaches, tools and resources….what Freeman identifies as image advertising (meaning god knows what…)has nothing to do with this.

2. you add
….Can you ….please explain the exact meaning of the concept ‘disintermediation’ with regards to PR. (To me it means cutting out the middleman or the opposite, reintroducing the middleman to a transaction).

In 2001 Ebay launched the sale of used cars on the internet in some northeastern states of the united states.

The success thrilled and at the same time alarmed auto manufacturers as their valued authorised dealers were made redundant.

One of the big consulting companies was hired to develop a reintermediation package for dealers.

Today dealers continue to exist, cars are still sold on line and the world has not fallen down.

In other sectors instead this has not happened and entire trades have gone out of existence.

If, ten years ago, an Italian journalist wanted to interview the Ceo of a multinational company his only gateway was to call the media relations manager of the Italian subsidiary, make a good case, hope his interlocutor was feeling well and in good standing with headquarters and eventually send in advance question areas.

Today I send an email request directly to the Ceo’s email address.

This does not mean that the media relations manager of the Italian subsidiary doesn’t serve a useful purpose.
Quite the contrary. But he has reintermediated his previous gatekeeping function which has been at least in part disintermediated.

I could go on and on and relate to employee, investor, political, supplier and other forms of stakeholder relationships.

Mind you, much of the process has less to do with the internet as such, and principally with the powerful surge of personal protagonism which has transformed each of us into a medium.

What I mean by disintermediation being the other side of the institutionalization coin, is that we should identify all our specific traditional practices which are or have been at least in part disintermediated, and evaluate (looking ahead, of course!) which be better abandoned and which should instead be reintermediated and how.

I hope this clarifies but am more than willing to elaborate further.

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One Reply to “Eric Koper: avoiding the sliding path from from narcisism to onanism.- Fraser Likely: how stakeholders change organizations – Benita Steyn: on Ed Freeman and disintermediation.”

  1. Thank you, Toni, for the explanation of ‘disintermediation.’ I guessed it was something like this, but I wanted to know exactly since you use it a lot!

    With regards to Freeman and his ‘PR approach’ to stakeholders, I of course have to agree that he is talking about a one-way persuasive communication approach (in his latest book) and now understand your negative feelings towards him in a previous comment. I saw mention of this book on the Internet and ordered it, but it takes months rather than weeks to arrive in our outpost of the empire so I cannot comment on it now. (Unfortunately Freeman’s later articles were amongst the 1000 or more I lost in my computer crash last year so I cannot click to my library any more–probably the biggest loss I have suffered in my academic career).

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