The power of stakeholders and why you should worry

Many organisations think that they know and understand their stakeholders but few really do. Ill-informed judgments are made and little evidence is ever gathered. Instead, potentially worrying and counterproductive assumptions are made.

Effective stakeholder analysis should not be entirely focused on political, regulatory and media audiences. Instead it needs to draw on the needs of the whole organisation from the supply chain through to internal audiences, investors, customers and others.

Missing groups out or basing engagement on little more than a supposed understanding contains real dangers. Some important considerations include:

  • Prioritisation – are the right groups being engaged?
  • Delivering the right messages – are you saying the right things to them or just broadcasting your messages?
  • Effective methods of feedback – are there ways in which stakeholders can feedback to you or is it a one way exchange of information?
  • Not answering the concerns they have – any relationship has to be mutually beneficial so you also need to help them deal with their challenges.

If you have not really engaging effectively then you leave them open to the influence and campaigning of others.

When I wrote New Activism and the Corporate Response the idea that campaigning groups and activists would target an organisation’s stakeholders was only just beginning to take shape. This is now much more common.

I recently had an interesting discussion with Robert Blood and Juliet Wu of SigWatch. They actually track and analyse activist campaigns. They can see what is happening now but, critically, consider trends and developments over time. On this basis they can think about what is going to happen.

Stakeholders can change their positions over time but this is not often considered, being sometimes assumed to be consistent. Campaigns need to change to reflect the changing nature and positions of stakeholders. Critically though they need to reflect the actions and campaigns of other stakeholders or NGOs. This can only happen if you alive to what is happening.

The importance of actual data is central to this. Many in public affairs are used to dealing with data from polls, focus groups or asking a question in a survey of politicians but little else. Other sectors are thinking how to use data and where it can be generated but public affairs is behind the curve. It appears that some are afraid of moving beyond personal expertise and insight. That still has a valuable role to play, and always will do, but public affairs needs to keep moving forward.

So rather than assuming you know what is happening with your stakeholders drill down into their behaviour and attitudes.

Stakeholders will fail to support you or could be ‘flaky’ if you do not do the right things by them. Just look at the way the sponsors of the Qatar 2022 World Cup are lining up to call for proper investigations into the bribery allegations. We have seen stakeholder networks come under pressure in a number of industries.

You may not care too highly for your reputation but your stakeholders care about theirs. Your task is to make sure that your stakeholder network is solid and stands alongside you when needed. You can only do that if you really understand them.

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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