The field of public relations (PR) is strongly concerned with questions surrounding the management of organizations’ identity, relationships, legitimacy, reputation, or trust. At the same time, these concerns rest on one fundamental baseline assumption: that organizations are collective actors in the first place; as proverbial corporate citizens, they engage, build stakeholder relationships, act (ir)responsibly, etc. However, as research on organizational actorhood shows (Bromley & Sharkey, 2017), the assumption that organizations operate as collective actors is relatively new and is changing over time, with a steady increase over the past few decades.
Similarly, in his bestselling book “Sapiens: A brief history of humankind”, Yuval Harari (2014) elaborates on the example of Peugeot and its corporate history to remind us that corporations are ultimately a “social fact” and no “natural fact” (or “brute fact”; see Searle, 1995). In other words, organizations like this only exist because people ultimately agree that there is such a social entity called Peugeot and make it happen through their daily activities on its behalf. However, if we adopt a view on collective actorhood as a recurrent accomplishment and social construction, what are the implications for PR scholarship, education, and practice?
In a recent paper published in Public Relations Inquiry (Buhmann & Schoeneborn, 2021), we try to develop an answer to this question. We do so by drawing on the theoretical lens of communicative institutionalism which assumes that “it is primarily in and through communication that institutions [incl. organizations] exist, are performed, and given shape” (Cornelissen et al., 2015, p. 15). Broadly speaking, from the viewpoint of communicative institutionalism, there is no institution of the organization without recurrent communication practices that create and maintain that institution. In other words, communication is understood here as a process through which collective entities, such as organizations, are constructed in and through interaction, instead of being merely a conduit for enacting discourses. This, in turn, fundamentally calls into question the a priori existence of the organization as a collective actor.
Three main implications of this communication-centered understanding of organizations and their actorhood for the field of PR are worth noting: First, the idea of communicative institutionalism helps shed light on the key role that PR activities (both internal and external ones) play in “giving birth” (recurrently) to organizations as social actors. This happens, for instance—and this is particularly interesting for the field of PR—through interactions with other organizational entities and the communicative building of relationships. PR activities thus can be seen as co-constitutive in making organizations appear as collective actors in the first place (and not just as a communicative practice of managing identity, relationships, legitimacy etc., thus the consequences of actorhood attribution).
Second, looking at organizational actorhood from the perspective of communicative institutionalism implies that such actorhood is not treated as a given but rather as a variable arising from communicative and cognitive attributions to organizations. In other words, if we approach organizational agency and actorhood as communicatively constituted (instead of presupposing organizations as collective social actors), PR practices of managing relationships, legitimacy, and reputation can then be looked at in their relation to fostering attributions of organizational actorhood. This raises new questions for PR research regarding the communicative practices that succeed in (re)affirming or obfuscating organizational actorhood status.
This is interesting because effective communicative obfuscation of organizational actorhood may “strategically withdraw” organizations from social evaluations and responsibility attributions. This is exemplified in repeated attempts from platform organizations, such as Uber, Twitter, or Facebook, to describe themselves merely as neutral conduits for transactions and information and to foreground users as the relevant agents—presumably in an attempt to disavow responsibility for what happens on the platform (see also Vergne & Wry, 2014).
Last but not least, if PR is viewed as affecting the very creation of organizations as actors, this opens up new ways of viewing the role of communication professionals. PR and corporate communication practitioners need to gain awareness of how their contributions maintain perceptions of organizational actorhood. Furthermore, if communicative relations between an organization and its environment are what ultimately “(co-)creates” an organization as a collective actor, then communication ought to be a key concern of organizational management. Recognizing the formative role of communication is key as organizations strive to maintain and nurture relationships with stakeholders across various levels and platforms. Being sensitive to the importance of PR in this role will allow organizations to master the new reality in which they are operating.
Bromley, P., & Sharkey, A. (2017). Casting call: The expanding nature of actorhood in US firms, 1960–2010. Accounting, Organizations & Society, 59, 3-20.
Buhmann, A., & Schoeneborn, D. (2021). Envisioning PR research without taking organizations as collective actors for granted: A rejoinder and extension to Hou. Public Relations Inquiry, 10(1), 119-127.
Cornelissen, J. P., Durand, R., Fiss, P., Lammers, J., & Vaara, E. (2015). Putting communication front and center in institutional theory and analysis. Academy of Management Review, 40(1), 10-27.
Harari, Y. N. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Random House.
Searle, J. R. (1995). The construction of social reality. Simon & Schuster.
Vergne, J. P., & Wry, T. (2014). Categorizing categorization research: Review, integration, and future directions. Journal of Management Studies, 51(1), 56-94.