An article I wrote with Christine Daymon has been published in the Journal of Public Relations Research.
Our study investigates how the definition of ‘shareholders’ are constructed and engaged with through public relations in the Australian financial sector. We found that there is a hierarchy within the stakeholder group known as shareholders which is perpetuated by and through a public relations approach which constructs a discourse of ‘ownership’ that excludes citizens as legitimate stakeholders and prevents their influence in ensuring a more responsible sector.
In responding to the challenges of greater public scrutiny many companies have focused on developing communication strategies that espouse a commitment, through policy and practice, to involving stakeholders in a positive manner in organisation activities. At the core of such strategies is the notion of stakeholder engagement which, ideally, involves processes of consultation, dialogue and exchange with the intention of enabling cooperation and increasing understanding and allows stakeholders such as shareholders, consumers, and employees to exert an influence on corporate governance. In practice, and from economic and legal perspectives, the foremost accountability relationship of managers is deemed to be with shareholders. This relationship is supported by conventional stakeholder thinking whereby shareholders are considered to be a core stakeholder group with a formal claim on a company because their support is necessary for that company to exist. The nature of the relationship between an organization’s management and its shareholders has been explained through agency theory. Shareholders, as the principals or owners of companies, are the primary constituents who delegate their decision-making rights to an agent. Whether or not one agrees with the view that the economic obligation of business supersedes its social obligation, there is a problem with agency theory in that it relies on a definition of the shareholder as one who makes a direct investment in a company (such as an institutional fund, or someone who buys shares through a stockbroker). That notion has become less applicable, and even out-dated, in the modern economy. In capitalist economies today, a substantial portion of the capital that fuels the daily activities and growth of major national and international listed companies is provided by indirect investors (i.e. citizen investors) through pooled or institutional funds, such as superannuation and pension funds, which invest and manage monies on behalf of others. For example, in Australia in 2010, the nation’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia estimated that around 40 per cent of the country’s equity market and 30 per cent of the bond market were owned by Australian-based institutional shareholders, predominantly superannuation funds.
The insertion of an intermediary (i.e. an institutional fund) between the real owners of capital (citizen investors) and the management of the listed companies in which they invest presents a complication for the traditional investment relationship which previously was based on a delegation of responsibility from direct shareholders to management.
The consequences of the discrimination that is perpetuated through public relations’ engagement strategies are that citizen investors are not educated about their role and rights as legitimate shareholders. Nor are they informed of the possibility to influence ethical, corporate decision-making and hold companies accountable for unacceptable actions. This is paradoxical when the same citizens who are passive as shareholders simultaneously may be engaging in public protest against the activities of the very same companies in which they hold investments. We have argued that if the engagement strategies of the Australian financial sector were equitable and responsible, then citizen investors might be motivated to actively contribute to corporate decision-making. The need then for public protest against corporate recklessness might be mitigated somewhat.
Engagement has a moral dimension and suggest that our application of the concept of engagement has been enriched by including consideration of responsibility and irresponsibility and public relations practitioners can contribute to a shift in how citizen investors and the broader community understand the meanings of ‘shareholder’ and ‘ownership’ with their subsequent rights and responsibilities, and potential for influence.