Monday, June 7, 2010

4 ways to Improve Stakeholder Relations

While it's easy to define "Stakeholders" as individuals or groups affected by the actions or policies of an organization, identifying stakeholders is left up to the organizations preparing to communicate change. A recent project I worked on involved identifying a list of stakeholders for consultation purposes. Not every group of potential stakeholders was listed, nor was every listed group given consideration for participation in the consultation. That's ok, because the groups are all different and should have, and expect, different levels of engagement. In addition, though, not all groups or individuals were identified for consideration. This is where the challenge comes in for organizations.

When organizations responsible for communicating change, or seeking input, begin the process, they have to start somewhere, and it's usually with the list of traditional stakeholders. However, as online communities develop on forums, Facebook and Twitter for example, it becomes increasingly difficult for organizations to identify each group and plan effective communications strategies for them.

The elusiveness of online communities highlight what has been true all along: that corporate or government actions affect many people who are not part of formal, identifiable groups. But today, these less formal groups have more opportunity for becoming engaged. When spokespeople say, "We've consulted with stakeholders" we know not everyone who is affected or interested could have been consulted.

It's time that communications and consultation plans reduce their reliance on named stakeholders and start incorporating improved engagement opportunities for unidentified groups and the public. Individuals and groups are now more able to self-identify and to expect opportunities to engage and have input.

Whether a company is planning to build a new facility, or a municipality plans to introduce a new bus route, identifying key stakeholders is only part of good communications. It's no longer enough to post bulletins on telephone polls, stuff mailboxes in the neighbourhoods affected, or invite "stakeholders" to working sessions. Plans now must include outreach through a variety of channels to ensure inclusion of individuals, groups, and on-line communities that may not be readily identifiable.

As our world get smaller, more people are affected by seemingly far-away actions. For example, while enormous in scope, consider the gulf oil catastrophe or Iceland's recent volcano: it's nearly impossible to identify all the stakeholders and manage the message. The public must have opportunities to get information and provide their opinions and concerns.

Reducing the use of the term stakeholder relations is the first step in recognizing that communications plans, irregardless of their comprehensiveness, just cannot identify everyone who has a stake. Therefore, being specific about who has been identified by organizations is the first step in being more inclusive and looking for opportunities to engage others.

Concerted efforts must be made to reach out through all channels to identifiable and non-identified groups and individuals. A start in accomplishing this is to ensure that communications plans:
  1. List stakeholder groups by name
  2. Note the potential that some groups and individuals are not identifiable
  3. Prepare opportunities to involve and communicate to unnamed groups and individuals
  4. Provide specific messages to spokespeople about who has been engaged.
To be credible, organizations must be specific and honest about their efforts in "stakeholder engagement" and these four steps are a beginning.