Publics and stakeholders

Innovation thinker Curtis Carlson has been quoted on the view that communication at the grassroots is smart but chaotic. This leaves a leadership vacuum.

As I write this, two state-sponsored threats to freedom of movement and expression are looming over South Africans. Motorists on Johannesburg highways – and eventually, it seems, in all major cities – will automatically be billed exhorbitant amounts through a fancy road toll system from which there will be no escape. The sheer cost of travel will restrict mobility.

And Parliament is once again to “debate” the absurdly named Protection of Information Bill (POIB) which will effectively close down channels of information about government. It will return us to the kind of official secrecy that prevailed under apartheid – this, under a reactionary ANC Parliamentary majority that has forgotten where the party came from and what it stood for.

All of this could be deeply depressing if it didn’t, at the same time, cause us to reassert our rights of citizenship. One thing about South Africans is that they don’t take official bullying lying down. What passes for debate in Parliament is a kind of ritualised rubber-stamping of whatever the inner party conclave wants (those unaccountable figures behind the Presidency). We know they desire no checks and balances on their freedom of action. The courts, for example, must stand aside and not imagine that they can curb executive action by citing the Constitution which is supposed to guarantee our freedoms.

In good old South African fashion the battle is joined outside Parliament, not inside it. Apartheid was not brought to its knees by genteel bickering between the benches; instead, the stakeholders in a future free South Africa formed themselves into the Mass Democratic Movement and took to the streets. Churches, civic organisations, trade unions, writers, students, sports people and environmental activists and even some business groups formed a loose and somewhat leaderless coalition. Their direct action included invading “whites only” beaches and hospitals. They mocked the law and they broke the law and eventually the law itself collapsed.

These stakeholders are still around: and that is the nature of stakeholding. They are constituents of communities which have a permanent existence in relation to the state and corporate organisations. They are there becauses they have interests in the way the country is run and how wealth is shared; they may be taxpayers or customers, the unemployed or volunteers in a cause, but whoever they are they make up many different groups. These groups are constituted around common needs and an enduring relationship with the centres of power.

Yet having needs and relationships is not the same as having consciousness of one’s problems or voicing demands against the centre. Stakeholders are inert until they mobilise. It is when they enter the public sphere as participants in action and debate that they become publics. The given role of stakeholders can be passively accepted but publics respond actively to burning issues. The transition from stakeholders to publics marks a shift from role to representation: their group interests are given voice and purpose.

Anyone working in the communications space as I do, will recognise this shift. We know advocacy when we see it. If we are curious we will seek to know more and report the developing consciousness of a stakeholder group that has begun to voice its demands and consolidate its awareness of what it wants and why it wants it. Today, social media are a very important channel, or channels, for stakeholder expression; and by the time the mainstream media pick up on a movement it is probably already well formed as a self-conscious public.

The old idea that media express “public opinion” has given way to the opinions of publics. Public opinion was an elitist notion. It was an aggregate of what the mainstream media embodied as a common agenda, and all too often this meant the agenda of those who controlled the limited number of channels of communication. Such control is less and less possible today as media diversity has grown enormously and will continue to grow with internet and mobile communications giving voice to stakeholder groups.

Innovation thinker Curtis Carlson has been quoted on the view that communication at the grassroots is smart but chaotic. That is indeed the nature of modern publics: clever but often confused. This is why those at the top – who are orderly, but dumb – may continue to hold sway because at least they have control and can step into the leaderless vacuum. It just happened in Egypt where a people’s revolution unseated a dictator but put the military in charge instead. What’s changed?

The Occupy Wall Street movement is learning, at the cost of enormous frustration, that a leaderless campaign simply allows the powers that be to force demonstrators off the streets and claim that this is for the sake of public order.

These are lessons for all. They should persuade citizen movements that they need to grow articulate leadership to ensure that the development of consciousness amongst publics actually does deliver what stakeholders want.

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