by Marita Vos, full professor corporate communication, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland
As the first entry in this series by different authors, this statement focuses on multi-stakeholder dynamics and change. The topic is timely as, these days, it seems that nothing can be taken for granted or, as often said, change is the only continuity. Persuasive communication takes a new meaning in the era of social media, and this change is caused by fast multi-stakeholder interplay. Nowadays, communication seems to shake and reshape the world. This requires us to rethink what to investigate and teach.
The developments in the field are a picture of the time. However, it is hard to explain the current events in our lives and the role of communication in these events. What comes to mind, is much debated by scholars in social media. We did not all see Trump’s victory coming, and it can only be understood as a complex combination of factors. Multi-actor expectations and interactions are at the heart of it.
What once seemed usual, cannot always be expected. What we learn our students about press relations was not happening in the White House press briefings recently. We saw trust in the news media being actively eroded, and untruths presented as alternative facts. In social media, the phenomenon is actively discussed, also among EUPRERA scholars. Some even suggested that paracrises are created to divert attention from unfavourable measures.
In the public arena, we see a battle of domination schemes versus problem solving schemes. As the domination-motivated actors may not adhere to the values and norms of others, the battle gets rough. Publics may be drawn in, based on false promises and misunderstood intentions. Public debate literacy is much needed. We can contribute to this form of literacy, by opening up multi-actor debate in our research and enhancing critical analysis skills in our teaching.
What once was, may not prove to be stable. Seemingly ‘strategic’ votes may have unexpected consequences, as any vote against something is, in fact, a vote for something else. Does voting mean giving a signal, or taking responsibility for consequences of the choice made? Of course, these consequences may be unclear and debated. Will, for example, Brexit bring money to voters, or is it likely to cost money and perhaps lead to a smaller United Kingdom? In a complex issue arena, multiple actors behave based on how they perceive their own different interests and their expectations of other actors. In our field, we often talk about co-creating the debate, but not many scholars analyse public interaction over time, which may help understand unexpected outcomes of multi-actor interplay.
Insights that filled our books, cannot always be expected behaviour in practice. This is also true on the level of companies. Recently, for example, there was disappointment about the take-over attempts on Unilever and Akzo Nobel that showed pressure in the direction of shareholder value, above other stakeholder interests and corporate social responsibility.
In a turbulent environment, communication can contribute to resilience, for example, on the level of community and organisational resilience, enhancing agile and anti-fragile organisations. This again needs insights in multi-actor communication in issue arenas. Inspirational works may be by, e.g. Coombs and Holladay (paracrisis), Frandsen and Johansen (rhetorical arena during crisis), Van Ruler (agile planning), Luoma-aho and Vos (issue arenas), and no doubt others.
Now that communication dynamics of multi-actor interaction online shape the world’s events, we need to ask ourselves: is our research and education up to that challenge?

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