Changing Stakeholder Communications?

The recent European Communication Monitor 2021 Survey showed the importance of digitalising stakeholder communications. But what does the post-pandemic world offer?

The Survey brings together data from 2,600 communications professionals across 46 countries and is now its 15th year. There is a good summary of the whole report on Stephen Waddington’s, Wadds Inc, blog.

As the report highlights, “39% of practitioners across Europe describe their unit as immature in both digitalising stakeholder communications and building digital infrastructure”.  In other words, few have reached digital ‘maturity’.

But video-conferencing has taken over the lives of practitioners because of the Covid-19 pandemic. 89.2% of respondents said that they used it for stakeholder communications during the past year. This was mostly for internal communications but for engagement with other stakeholders as well (although less so with journalists). Stakeholder dialogues with interest groups, politicians and communities is conducted by video-conferencing by 70.8% and non-profit organisations were likely to use it more than others.

Interestingly, the survey also finds that video-conferencing is less valued by stakeholders in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe so we don’t have a universal picture by any means.

But the trend of using video-conferencing is, according to the survey, likely to continue – “a majority sees the technology continuously as an effective tool for organisational communication and equally expect their stakeholders to share this opinion”.

There is no doubt that organisations have been trying to think creatively way about the way that they digitise their stakeholder engagement and are trying to stretch what can be achieved with Zoom, Teams, and other platforms.

There has also, in my experience, been more recognition of the need for outside professional help. If nothing else, then to help make digital engagement stand out from what others are doing. There is only so much staring at a screen full of faces that one person can put up with. Any variety in that is very welcome.

No doubt it is an area where many of us could do with some training and education, and I am certainly always on the look-out for what is working well for organisations online.

But thinking ahead, I am less convinced that politicians, one of our key stakeholders in public affairs, will be completely happy with continued video-conferencing.

Of course, it will work for many situations, but the experience is that direct one-to-one discussions helps to build trusted relationships, especially early on. Certainly previous studies such as Vuelio’s, which was admittedly pre-Covid, pointed to the value to politicians of in-person events such as those that take place in Parliament.

But we also have to think about the changing shape of politics. The Government is shifting more of the civil service away from London and we have the rise of Metro Mayors (and the possibility of more to come) to name but two significant changes.

As always, we need to consider what the needs and requirements of our audiences are.  So, will the audience consider that online engagement is a poor substitute for face-to-face engagement? Will it be considered ‘bad form’ not to visit, for instance, Treasury North in Darlington? Would it, as far as Government is concerned, reduce the economic benefits for the local area if meetings, events etc do not happen because we decided to hold a meeting from home rather than taking the time to visit? There are personal relationships and implications to consider but wider ones as well which may too have an impact on the personal.

In other words, we need to consider a number of issues related to how we conduct engagement after Covid, and these will be political as well as personal.

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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