It is easy to blame the intended stakeholder audience when engagement isn’t effective, especially when it comes to government. Instead, the fault for poor engagement really lies with us. We are doing it wrong.
I recently spoke at a Westminster Higher Education Forum conference about the challenges involved in stakeholder engagement and this post is based on my comments.
When engagement is ineffective, the challenge is to improve our stakeholder engagement and reflect on what we can do better.
What you really need to appreciate is why any stakeholder should listen to you.
For me, there are two fundamental aspects to this – reputation and expertise. But they are not mutually exclusive.
There is the reputation of the organisation and individuals to think about. That needs to be built, maintained, and protected over time. Especially across higher education, we have seen examples of how a reputation can be damaged, unrelated to any stakeholder engagement – pay, exclusion of speakers, statues, working rights and conditions etc.
A stakeholder will not engage if their association with you impacts on their reputation. In short, what is in it for them? Why take the risk?
But the engagement should also take place over time, it’s not a one-off process. It’s about reputation and building trust. This is about you, your colleagues, your department, your institution. They are interlocked. You are part of a bigger narrative. You cannot simply turn up and expect to be listened to.
So, reputation management is one aspect.
The other is how you demonstrate your expertise through the engagement.
This means reflecting on the needs of the audiences you want to engage with. Recognising their needs, not just what you want to say. The engagement should focus on dialogue. You should not be broadcasting messages or information at them.
So, get the research results, the evidence, the data, to the right stakeholders. But do that in way that works for them.
You need to understand them – what their priorities are, what their timescales are, their interests and so on.
Think about the relevance of your work and how you can help them make the most of it.
So, you speak to the right people, at the right time, with the right information, which enables and motivates them to get involved.
It is, I think, also worth thinking through why stakeholder engagement goes wrong, so that we can all learn from it.
- Fundamental is not really understanding the motivations of stakeholders and the pressures, internally and externally, on them. You just end up talking at them.
- Always avoid jargon and lack of solutions to any problems identified – don’t just make it a moan!
- Effective stakeholder engagement is a long-term process, not a quick hit – you need to appreciate that good stakeholder relationships take time to develop. Think about it as being a journey to becoming a trusted adviser. Reaching that end point means the stakeholder appreciates and trusts the information you deliver and may come to you proactively as well.
On the more positive side, remember that many of your stakeholder audiences need evidence to support and justify their decisions. So, they need you. You can be useful to them. That is especially the case if the issue is a controversial one. You can play a positive role which will ensure that that your engagement has impact.
What does this all mean?
It means good stakeholder engagement encompasses the whole of the organisation, across teams, it isn’t just about communications.
Direct engagement with stakeholders is essential but don’t ignore indirect engagement as well, media, social media, stakeholders who may influence them etc. Who and what do they listen to? That wider stakeholder network.
Finally, it all takes time, effort, and resources. Organisations, including senior management, need to understand that.
Get that right and then you can make your stakeholder engagement work most effectively.