By Jo Field,
Brexit is a critical issue for PR professionals. It will dominate politics, government, and the media for the foreseeable future. And it opens up both opportunities and challenges for the organisations we represent.
Against this backdrop of change, demands from customers and service users are also shifting. Organisations are asking themselves how they can better communicate with our customers and stakeholders in this new political climate, and how can they inform and influence public policy at this crucial time.
While it may be tempting to focus your public affairs efforts on central government and elected representatives, it’s important to broaden your audience in times of change. Influencing campaigns are much more powerful when you have a chorus of voices amplifying your message, and this means engaging effectively with stakeholders.
Stakeholder engagement is about building relationships with the communities and groups that are interested in your organisation and its projects, campaigns, products and services.
It creates opportunities for decision makers to hear from the people their decisions directly affect – the stakeholders themselves. Engaging with those stakeholders means better policy decisions are made.
Exemplary stakeholder engagement is about working together with your stakeholders to achieve common goals.
And, when an organisation successfully engages its stakeholders, they are willing to champion its cause, and become cheerleaders for its projects. This is key to protecting your organisation’s reputation and influencing the policy agenda.
Five tips for better stakeholder engagement
#1 Identify your stakeholders: The first stage of stakeholder engagement is to carry out a thorough mapping exercise to identify and understand your stakeholders, and their views of your organisation, project, or campaign. Consider their level of interest in your project, and their degree of influence.
#2 Have the conversation: This may sound obvious. But you would be surprised how often I encounter organisations or teams that don’t want to talk to their stakeholders. This is especially true when a stakeholder holds contrary views or has a reputation for being ‘difficult’. But having the conversation is a major part of stakeholder engagement. Don’t be scared to talk to your stakeholders. Doing so will help gain their respect. Different groups will often have different perspectives on a project and competing views, but the worst mistake you can make is to ignore them. All interested groups have the right to be heard and they must be. What’s more, familiarity for a business can lead to favourability. Delivering top-quality, meaningful stakeholder engagement, can genuinely turn ‘critical friends’ into important allies and angry customers into loyal supporters.
#3 Engage early and often: It’s important to make contact with your stakeholders early on in the project or campaign. Engagement should involve two-way dialogue, transparency, and active listening. Stakeholders should be consulted at every stage and have a real opportunity to influence what your company is doing. Stakeholders should be given the confidence that you are going to listen to, and take account of, their views and requirements. I’d recommend going above and beyond what the law requires. Turning a good project into a great one means embedding stakeholder engagement from the start and aiming to be an exemplar rather than just delivering the minimum legal requirement. I’d recommend sharing initial ideas with trusted stakeholders and gaining their perspectives, insights and expertise at the earliest possible stage. After all, you’re unlikely to achieve advocacy by delivering the bare minimum.
#4 Aim to build advocacy among your stakeholders: Advocacy is one of the key business benefits of stakeholder engagement You should engage with a wide range of stakeholder groups and aim to build an advocacy platform for your business or project by carrying out top-quality, meaningful engagement. This will help make the case for your project, drive forward your campaigns, and protect your organisation’s reputation. But, be aware, building advocacy is a long-term process and it doesn’t happen overnight. When it’s reached, however, advocacy from your customers or stakeholders about what your business does, can allow you to influence the policy agenda and ensure your company’s performance thrives. Fundamentally, achieving advocacy is all about building relationships, listening and working in partnership with your stakeholders to deliver results that work for everyone.
#5 Be an advocate for your stakeholders: One of the most important parts of your role as a stakeholder engagement professional is to be your stakeholders’ advocate within your own organisation. Your job is to make sure the right people in your company hear the information and expertise from your stakeholders, at the right time. You need to champion your stakeholders’ needs and be their advocate internally. Make sure your organisation takes their views on board and responds. This will help build relationships and trust over time.
Jo Field is the founder and managing director of JFG Communications, a boutique agency that helps companies engage their stakeholders, build advocacy about what they do, and inform and influence policy. Jo is also a trainer on the CIPR stakeholder engagement workshop.
This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2018.
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