Stakeholder engagement as a part of strategic communications

Strategic communications is the selected use of communication tools and techniques in a bespoke way. Strategic stakeholder engagement builds trust as well as long-term value for the business of an organization.

In order to be successful, an organization must be able to make an honest and insightful analysis of a given situation, then take an integrated strategic communications approach with clear objectives and metrics to measure progress.

Unlocking the full potential of stakeholder engagement

In most annual plans of communications departments you will read phrases such as “supporting the business in achieving its growth ambitions” or “helping the organization to realize its aspired portfolio”.

In many ways, these descriptions are spot-on. Although you would hope the communications team does not translate such an overall task into reactively communicating what the business decides or undertakes.

You would hope the team is out there in front of the business analyzing the stakeholder force field and subsequently implementing a strategic plan with innovative techniques that create trusted relationships and business opportunities.

The potential impact of communications to unlock business value has grown over the years in line with new technologies and the growing demands of external stakeholders due to changing societal expectations.

The historical triangle of trust between government, industry and society at large has been broken for some time. The fracture the communications profession to build trusted relationships in a modern way while addressing the same stakeholder demands for transparency and relevance for society that goes far beyond employment, tax and corporate social responsibility.

In applying the full value of communications for your organization, there is some disappointing news to share upfront: there is no straightforward recipe on the web or a standard rule book on the shelf that guides you through every situation to a winning approach.

There is no straightforward recipe on the web or a standard rule book on the shelf that guides you through every situation to a winning approach.

Every situation needs a bespoke approach that selects some specific ingredients and methods coupled with sound advice on tone and intensity of communications. Bringing sound judgment to the table has always been a key capability of communications leaders and will remain important well into the future.

In the absence of a simple navigator that guides an organization from A to B, there are a couple of generic ideas for organizations to consider in building an integrated and strategic communications plan for business value

Define your A and B for stakeholder engagement

Be very clear and honest what you want to achieve by analyzing the current situation and expressing where you want to go to, hence focus on your ‘A’ and ‘B’. To complete this phase, it is recommended that a solid force field and complexity analysis is carried out including a stakeholder power map. We sometimes couple this with digital analysis of sentiment toward your company.

Be very clear and honest what you want to achieve by analyzing the current situation and expressing where you want to go to, hence focus on your ‘A’ and ‘B’.

This looks like a simple exercise of filling out some standards templates. That is however not the case. I have come across many situations over the years that four fingers pointed at a specific issue or stakeholder group that was seen as blocking a situation, whilst in reality the thumb made it clear that unhelpful internal behaviours or the complete absence of any social relevance were causing an overload of distrust.

A solid analysis helps you define an ambitious but still realistic point B. Linked to that, we advise that you include measurable metrics to objectively quantify progress. Metrics can be drawn-up around communications output, but if your point B is around business, then measure also in business outcomes.

The stakeholder engagement narrative

In many situations you want to radically change the conversations and subsequent behaviours of institutional stakeholders or customers around your organization. That is quite a task.

So, based on your stakeholder analysis, communications consultants help you craft a new or refined narrative with key messages and supporting evidence in a clean message house or framework. I have seen a lot of these frameworks. Most of the time they are well-designed, but it’s is all about the content…

Frankly, there are too many examples around that lack any external impact. This is usually the result of internal rounds of editing having knocked out all crisp, quotable, creative content.

Hence you should at least use a focus group approach to get feedback. Prepare for a tough experience as you will learn that the group around the table will miss some nuances of the text. But better to get a wake-up call on time than to correct things afterwards.

Strategic alliance management

Organizations think they have to undertake most tasks by themselves. That is not necessary. Alliance management is a big chunk of strategic communications. It builds (sometimes surprising) coalitions that have the potential to bring more credibility, or additional power, while there can be a positive culmination of brands.

Stakeholder engagement campaigns

Finally, there is the campaign thinking. Select a handful of themes and orchestrate a mix of channels that fit the message. Then you will need to play with all channels and tools in way that will ensure you will stay in the driver’s seat of the external conversation to get your message across and achieve your objective.

In today’s fast-paced digital environment, this channel mix is more of a conversation than a broadcast, so ensure you have built a team, or the have the necessary resources, to support ongoing engagement.

In today’s fast-paced digital environment, this channel mix is more of a conversation than a broadcast, so ensure you have built a team, or the have the necessary resources, to support ongoing engagement.

Many people think that strategic communications will end-up as a multi-million dollar exercise. That is not the case. It depends on your objective. Building a new product line is different from changing the external conversation around your company. For the latter for instance, you would need to influence stakeholder appreciation and preference. Advertising is just a small part of such an effort, or perhaps absent.

Remember, people make things happen. Therefore, a modern competency framework for the communications team of any organization is the basis for positive change.


About the author Bert Regeer

As one of Tantalus’ most senior management consultants, Bert has more than 25 years of hands-on and leadership experience. He is the former Vice-President Communications for Royal Dutch Shell, leading strategy development and reputation plan implementation with a clear focus to build business value.

Bert has extensive experience in change management, including business needs, organizational design, leadership culture, staff competencies, efficient work processes, team behaviors as well as managing the transition.

He’s also a trusted advisor of senior management in a range of companies.

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