Corporate Communication Through Actor Networking Stakeholder Theory

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With an unstable economy and insecure future, corporations are finding it hard to predict how changes ahead will affect their stakeholders. Stakeholder relations are at the heart of corporate communications (Coombs and Holladay, 2007; Wu, 2007) and has recently been suggested that PR is equal to communication management which is equivalent to stakeholder relations. Previous literature on stakeholders has mostly concentrated on social networks between corporations and their stakeholders (Bornsen et al., 2008; Mitchell et al., 1997; Na¨si, 1995). However, social networks between people constitute only one part of the larger networks that sustain society and corporations. Strategic communication for corporations means looking beyond obvious stakeholders into potential uncharted territory (Fox, 2008). Without this understanding, many important stakes as well as stakeholders may remain hidden, exposing the corporation to potential harm. Actor-network theory (Latour, 2005, 1994) is intended to explain complex networks in challenging settings and offers a fresh approach to studying corporate environments. Actor Networking Theory helps map both the stakeholders as well as the non-human entities that affect the success of corporations.

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The main contributions of Actor Networking Theory can be seen in the wider understanding it offers of networks and their formation, as it emphasizes the importance of constant negotiation and inscription and acknowledges non-human entities as important parts of the corporate environment (Cooren and Fairhurst, 2008). Actor Networking Theory is especially useful for further development of stakeholder theory as it does not aim to predict outcomes but allows for variations by merely mapping the whole network and highlighting the process of translation, where actors convince others to join their cause. This paper addresses, the timely topic of different stakes in the corporate environment. It starts with what is known and the limitations of previous stakeholder theory: not fully understanding the non-human entities (concept derived from Actor Networking Theory) that can lead to new stakeholders. To illustrate, Mall of Africa under Attacq will be used as a case study to show how non-human entities such as infrastructure, technology, and market trends contributed to translating masses into opposing the corporation or leveraging wide support for it. The paper first examines, the definitions of a stakeholder and explains the need for a broader understanding of stakes.

Second, borrowing from Actor Networking Theory, the paper introduces the process of “translation,” where actors mobilize others into joining their network. The question is: who can existing stakeholders and non-human entities potentially translate into joining their cause? The Mall of Africa case study is then followed by conclusions and discussion on practical implications for corporate communication and suggestions for future study. Where is the gap in the stakeholder theory? The premises of stakeholder theory are clear: corporate networks both restrict and facilitate its functioning, assuming that a favourable operating environment is beneficial and an unfavourable one harmful (Carroll, 1993; Freeman, 1984; Wood and Jones, 1995). However, stakeholders are entities and individuals who also exist in the absence of the corporation (Rowley, 1997). Corporations merely provoke some aspects of pre-existing entities and spheres of influence and a social relation is formed (Hallahan, 2000). Hence, corporate success can be measured through the stakeholders’ and publics’ opinions, and how well the corporation responds to them (Waddock and Graves, 1997). Despite the different frames of reference, most scholars agree that the term “stakeholders” refers to “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s objectives” (Freeman, 1984, p. 46).

The central idea is mutual dependence: individuals or groups depend on the corporation to fulfill their aims, and the corporation depends on them for its existence (Rhenman, 1964). A corporation is hence a socio-technical system that enables the fulfillment of different needs as “stakeholders make up the fragile ecosystem of any business” (Foley and Kendrick, 2006, p. 62). Dealing with stakeholders, therefore, consists of continuously “balancing and integrating multiple relationships and multiple objectives” (Freeman and McVea, 2001). There is a need to segment and prioritize stakeholders. To solve the multi-objective dilemma of different stakeholder needs, Winn (2001) models a stakeholder decision-making process that differentiates between stakeholders, objectives and issues. Some have criticized the stakeholder concept for having, thus far at least, failed to match the dynamism of public relations (Wu, 2007). It has been argued that stakeholder theory overemphasizes the role of the organization and oversimplifies the chaotic and complex nature of the corporate environment (Steurer, 2006). Different actors affecting organizational operations have not been emphasized enough and many important “stakes” remain unacknowledged by previous studies.

Scholars are still debating whether non-human stakeholders can be equally as important as human stakeholders (Starik, 1995), but Vidgen and McMaster (1996, p. 255) boldly define stakeholders as any “human or nonhuman organization unit that can affect as well as be affected by a human or nonhuman organization unit’s policy or policies.” To bridge this gap, Actor Networking Theory and the process of translation are next introduced. Actor Networking Theory and the process of translation The ANT (Latour, 2005) offers “a theoretical shift in emphasis away from the centrality and primacy of human subject” (Somerville, 1999, p. 8). For ANT, humans are not the only beings with agency nor the only entities to “act”; all are actants and they play a role. Actants can be anything from machines to landscaping, anyone or anything with a “capability” to make a difference (Giddens, 1984). Only a few studies thus far have combined stakeholder theory and ANT. The process of translation has been studied but not in the retail context or rather industry. Somerville (1999) presents ANT as having something to offer for the theory and practice of public relations, through description of the struggle between not only social, but also other actors. The point is not to make these non-human entities stakeholders or retrieve any agency from humans, but rather to note that their “lack of will or intention does not disqualify them from making a difference” (Cooren and Fairhurst, 2008, p. 131).

The process of translation has much in common with the idea of issues management, and the process of translation is in fact similar to an “issue life cycle” analysis (Heath, 1997; Mahon and Waddock, 1992). Translation is a process of re-interpretation and re-presentation as it “generates ordering effects such as devices, agents, institutions, or organizations.” If the process of translation is successful, a network of aligned interests is formed. A translation may or may not be successful, and networks are contingent. There is no fixed final network, but rather all networks are moulded by the inclusion of new elements and changes in the relationship between actors over time. Translations take different forms to mobilize maximum support: re-interpretation, re-presentation or appropriation of others’ interests to one’s own, meaning by translation one and the same interest or anticipation may be presented in different ways, thereby mobilizing broader support.

The processes of translation are ongoing, and several related or unrelated processes of translation can take place at the same time, as translations take place in the different corporate settings and areas of responsibility. For example, an organisation, i.e. retail centre (Mall of Africa) can simultaneously be involved in industry lobbing, be covered in the news for its new services and products, conduct negotiations with partners (long term exhibition contracts with BMW for instance), be the target of online activism (anti-crime during the festive season for example) and take part in academic discussion (the future of retail, omni-channel and the omni-shopper). In some of these translation processes, the organisation may have a better chance at becoming central in the network (obligatory passage points (OPP), to be discussed further in the paper), while in others it can merely be translated into an existing network. The amount and flux of existing networks is visible for example in the blogosphere, where issues and expertise are constantly debated and renegotiated (Illia, 2003), and organisations are seldom the only ones at the centre of those issues (for instance the Mall of Africa blog and other retail related blogs).

Translation starts with “problematization,” where the issue or problem to be solved is addressed and relevant actors are decided upon. This leads to the process of finding delegates to represent groups of actors. Strong actors (focal or primary actors) aim at becoming OPPs for the network. The second phase is “interessement,” where persuasion takes place: the focal actor motivates and negotiates with the others to get them interested and involved in the network. After that comes the third phase, “enrolment,” which includes consent of the actors to the roles defined for them and explained during the previous phases. Communication is key for enrolment as it shapes expectations and actions. For example, those well informed and aware of coming changes are less likely to be negotiated into a network of opposition.

On the other hand, those aware of arising issues have the chance to take a proactive stance and aim to become OPPs in the early stages of the forming network. Although here these stages are separated, they are not always separable and different translations may overlap. It is also important to remember that the process of translation does not always take place in the way intended and that something may happen to rupture the network after a successful translation. Moreover, the network structure changes every time new translations take place and more interests have to be negotiated. To conclude, translation is the path through which one entity, for example the organization, guides other entities toward its desired understanding. The goal is eventually to be able to speak on behalf of other actors enrolled in the network. Mall of Africa Case Study – Translation in practice As translation is a way to present one specific interest in different ways to mobilize broader support, it offers a comprehensive way of approaching the various ongoing stakeholder negotiations of corporations. Although the emphasis in stakeholder theory has thus far been on the persuasive process of interessement, corporations and their different stakeholders also undergo the phases of problematization and enrolment.

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