Information intermediaries (or infomediaries) are those organizations that function as mediators of information among stakeholders and another organization. In the simplest form, information intermediaries are brokers of information, solely passing on information from one stakeholder to another or from an organization to its stakeholders. Most often, however, they need to be understood as active constructors of meaning, as spreading information is an activity also entailing a certain degree of transformation. In this way, information intermediaries are of key importance for the construction of corporate reputation. The rest of this entry examines the relationship between corporations and information intermediaries; the two categories of information intermediaries—specialist infomediary organizations and occasional infomediary organizations; and infomediaries from an organizational view.
Corporations, and other organizations, need to be understood contextually and exist in information-intense environments. Information is a key factor in organizational life and is becoming increasingly important as well as complex, not least in relation to digitization. As reputation is constructed through actors’ collective perceptions, and thus is mainly a perceptional phenomenon, information plays a key role. A very basic distinction of reputational sources is between (a) the direct experiences of one particular company (e.g., at the time of purchase, the use of a product or service, or personal contact with an employee) and (b) indirect experiences (e.g., through company information, word of mouth from family and friends, or news media). Information intermediaries are involved in the creation and circulation of information that makes it possible for people to have indirect experiences of a company. Thus, information intermediaries are of key importance for understanding how stakeholders form their reputational assessments of a company.
Two Categories of Information Intermediaries
The concept of information intermediary is broad and relates to various similar concepts stressing the mediating roles of stakeholders, such as reputational intermediaries, cybermediaries, and institutional as well as organizational intermediaries. Information intermediary is a rather novel concept and originates from David Deephouse and Pursey Heugen’s work, in which they particularly stress the importance of understanding information exchange processes. The key actors driving such information exchange processes are infomediaries. According to Deephouse and Heugens, an information intermediary is a type of stakeholder that engages in information exchange processes and thereby links organizations to social issues and problems. It is through infomediary processes that organizational actors—such as corporations—are linked to societal issues and problems at the level of an organizational field. The mediating work of infomediaries can therefore be understood as linking processes in which societal issues are translated and tied to specific organizations.
Broadly speaking, information intermediaries are stakeholders who are particularly engaged with collecting, creating, and circulating information of various kinds about organizations and social issues. Organizations defined as infomediaries are staffed by what can be called infomedia workers—employees who manage the ongoing information flow (e.g., reporters, editors, analysts, communications professionals, public relations consultants, and writers). The term infomediary can in its very broadest sense include all kinds of organizations that are communicating with other organizations in one way or another. Hence, organizations can be more or less infomediaries, and broadly defined, it is possible to divide them into (a) specialist infomediary organizations and (b) occasional infomediary organizations.
Specialist Infomediary Organizations
Organizations that have specialized in collecting and distributing information of any kind can be defined as specialist infomediaries. Their main task is to be an information provider and thus mediate certain information between other organizations. The most obvious infomediary is the professional news media. News media can be understood as the prototype of infomediaries—a role that is further strengthened in today’s mediatized organizational environments. The topics and worldviews mediated by the general media influence audiences’ opinions. Organizations are more likely to adopt social issues when they are paid attention to in the media. The media are not mirrors of organizations, individuals, and events, but they actively create images of reality. For example, the media function as mediators of what organizational behavior is appropriate, which corporate leaders are celebrated, what management knowledge and models are consumed and adapted, and how corporate responsibility is defined. The professional news media have an increasingly important role as agenda setters and sensemakers in the life of corporations, and must therefore be addressed as a force influencing the life—and not least the reputation—of corporations and other organizations.
The infomediary role of the professional news media is highly defined through the work routines and norms of journalism. The work of journalists is well structured and governed by well-established ideas of what information is considered to be suitable as news content and its format. Briefly, criteria defining news value are, for example, that something is up-to-date, is geographically close, deviates from the expected, is emotionally triggering, contains a conflict, is possible to illustrate visually, and is entertaining. Common criteria for what is emphasized when producing news items—storytelling techniques—are simplification, stereotyping, dramatization, personification, and polarization. The media logic that guides the news production and distribution processes shapes the way the news media mediate information among stakeholders and between stakeholders and corporations. The infomediary processes are highly dependent on the institutional conditions of the media organization.
An understanding of news media as an infomediary must also take into account and be sensitive to the ongoing transformation of the media landscape. The digitization of news media and journalism transforms the routines and norms of media work, which in turn creates novel intermediary roles for news media. In addition, digitization brings new communication platforms and channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, into existence. Online communication offers increasingly many possibilities for actors to exchange information and thus opens up opportunities for a range of new infomediaries that are growing in importance in terms of managing corporate reputation.
In addition to professional news media and online communication channels, there are other specialist infomediary organizations that have collecting, creating, and circulating information about other organizations as their main activity. These are, for example, financial analysts as well as monitoring, rating, and standardizing organizations. One example is the Financial Times’ ranking of European business schools or the International Standards (ISO)—spanning areas as varied as quality management (ISO 9000), language codes (ISO 639), risk management (ISO 31000), and social responsibility (ISO 26000). The growing field of auditing and accounting allows for interorganizational comparisons and rankings, for example, and has been defined as a direct reflection of an organization’s reputation. Rankings and standards offer a framework for corporations to use in order to understand what stakeholders expect from them, and allow the intermediary to influence what ideas, issues, and problems are accounted for.
Occasional Infomediary Organizations
According to Deephouse and Heugens, all organized stakeholder groups can take on the role of an information intermediary. Whenever a stakeholder communicates with other organizational groups about social issues, ideas, and problems, the stakeholder is participating as an infomediary. Hence, we can expect all different types of organizational forms—such as private firms, publicly traded companies, and government-subsidized organizations, as well as nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations—to participate in information exchange as information intermediaries. In information-intensive environments, it is apt to assume that stakeholders often increasingly play the role of intermediaries and that companies, as a consequence, need to relate to a growing amount and flow of information as part of their reputation management.
Nonprofit organizations are illustrative examples of a stakeholder group that does not necessarily have as its core task to collect and circulate information but certainly will take on the role of an information intermediary from time to time. For example, watchdog organizations such as Greenpeace, Amnesty, and CorpWatch investigate misbehavior and attempt to change corporate conduct. Often they cooperate with the professional news media to reach out with their stories in order to influence public opinion and put pressure on the corporate world.
An Organizational View of Infomediaries
A common understanding of intermediaries in general is that they are “neutral” information brokers functioning as third-party mediators in exchange processes between a company and its different stakeholder groups. The understanding of an information intermediary, as proposed by Deephouse and Heugens, and presented above, stresses that they are organizations themselves. This means that they need to be understood as any other organizational actor with purposes, ambitions, organizational structures, and culture, and as part of a social context. For example, and as presented previously, the professional news media do not mirror the reality but are dependent on work routines and norms, as well as other organizational and societal constraints, when information is transformed into news items. Processes in which information is transferred from one place to another necessitate some kind of actorhood, which in turn will—in one way or another—shape the piece of information being spread. In this way, spreading information is also a way of assigning meaning to events, ideas, organizations, and individuals. The activities of information intermediaries are thus never neutral in character and should always be understood from an organizational and contextual perspective.
More specifically, Deephouse and Heugens propose that information intermediaries can use their status and options to influence the organizational behavior of other firms by pushing social issues and problems away from themselves onto other organizations. The activity of linking a social issue to one organization can partly be an act of disowning responsibility. Intermediaries are in this way engaged in information exchange with a deliberate aim to create linkages between social problems and negative situations and specific organizations.
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