Public relations, passive aggression and critical social auditing: reflections on organisational inaction in stakeholder engagement

Published date01 May 2015
Date01 May 2015
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1002/pa.1522
Academic Paper
Public relations, passive aggression and
critical social auditing: reections on
organisational inaction in stakeholder
engagement
Paul Willis*
Centre for Public Relations Studies, Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds, UK
This article explores issues associated with organisational governance in the context of stakeholder engagement. It
argues that both public relations (PR) research and practice have yet to address systematically the challenges inherent
in this area, particularly how organisations exert power over stakeholders. Prompted by a consideration of the situa-
tional theory of power put forward by the sociologist Steven Lukes, it introduces the concept of passive aggression
to PR practice. This is cited as an example of a wider phenomenon, which the author calls dark dialogue. The insights
generated by these perspectives are used to highlight how theoretical approaches in the PR eld that seek to under-
stand and promote the role of dialogue in organisational-stakeholder relations face an empirical challenge. This insight
is then used to highlight the limitations of what has been traditionally termed as social auditing. It is suggested that PR
and social auditing practice share the same blind spots when it comes to assessing how organisations exercise power
and behave towards their stakeholders. The article goes on to advocate collaboration between PR professionals and
academics to practically address these issues through a recongured social auditing process. It ends by suggesting that
action research provides a methodological framework through which these theory-practice interactions can be facili-
tated productively. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
INTRODUCTION
This article explores issues associated with organi-
sational governance in the context of stakeholder
engagement. It argues that both public relations
(PR) research and practice have yet to address
systematically the challenges inherent in this area,
particularly how organisations exert power over
stakeholders. Prompted by a consideration of the
situational theory of power put forward by the soci-
ologist Steven Lukes (2005) the paper introduces the
concept of passive aggression to PR practice. This is
cited as an example of a wider phenomenon, which
the author calls dark dialogue.
The insights generated by these new conceptual
perspectives are used to highlight how theoretical
approaches in the PR eld that seek to understand
and promote the role of dialogue in organisational-
stakeholder relations face an empirical challenge.
That is, the practices designed by organisations to
deliberately suppress dialogue with stakeholders
are less susceptible to observation than dialogue
itself. This insight is then used to highlight the limi-
tations of what has been traditionally termed as
social auditing. Indeed, it is suggested that PR and
social auditing practice share the same myopic ten-
dencies when it comes to assessing how organisa-
tions behave towards their stakeholders. The article
then advocates a role for PR practitioners to instil
critical thinking about power into a recongured
social auditingprocess. It ends by suggesting thatac-
tion research provides a methodological framework
*Correspondence to: Paul Willis, Centre for Public Relations
Studies, Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds, UK.
E-mail: p.a.willis@leedsmet.ac.uk
Journal of Public Affairs
Volume 15 Number 2 pp 220226 (2015)
Published online 25 June 2014 in Wiley Online Library
(www.wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/pa.1522
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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