4 December 2014

No Company is An Island: A Systematic Approach to Engage With Stakeholders

We advise our clients all over the world on a daily basis on how to optimize their communications both internally and externally.
No Company is An Island: A Systematic Approach to Engage With Stakeholders
A particular form of our clients’ communications needs is the interaction with and the delivery of messages to public authorities and government instances to influence their decisions, as these can create the policy environment in which our clients conduct their business. To achieve favorable results or to prevent negative outcomes, we need to convey the right arguments to these decision-makers, preferably by demonstrating that the positions we defend are supported by large portions of the public. We also need to identify and convince those who whisper in the ears of the decision-makers, because these influencers are trusted and listened to. And we need to ensure that the ideas and proposals fall on fertile ground because they are supported and amplified by the opinion-leaders, media commentators and other public voices that create and feed the debate on the issue at hand.

Besides the quality of the message, the credibility of the messenger constitutes an essential convincing factor to reach decision-makers. This is where stakeholders of a company or an organization come into play. Successful companies will engage their stakeholders as part of their license to operate. They will identify relevant audiences and establish and manage relationships to discuss, inform and advance issues that shape the reputation of the organization and thus have an impact on the bottom line. Together with Jan Ottesen in Oslo and Thomas Wimmer in Berlin, the public affairs practitioners are developing an H+K methodology to help clients approach their engagement with stakeholders effectively. It will guide the way in which the client reviews its business objectives and assesses its competitors. It will assist in the analysis of where an industry is going and what the main issues that it faces are. Of course, this engagement demands an adequate structure with the required resources, and needs to take into account the organization’s culture. As a result, we can greatly improve what the world outside thinks and says about the organization. In short, proper stakeholder engagement is the foundation of the company’s reputation.

When I speak with CEOs and other company leaders, I usually get approving nods when I raise the need to engage with stakeholders. They usually have an intuitive idea on what they consider as the most important relationships their company has. But when I dig a bit deeper, they reluctantly concede that they have never systematically listed all of their stakeholders. No order of priority or importance has been drawn up in terms of the impact stakeholders may have. They don’t really know how to identify the right targets and supply them with the right messages, let alone how to activate them to become advocates of the cause that benefits the company. This is the stage where the H+K methodology becomes very valuable. Has the company analyzed the full value chain, from employees, to customers, to suppliers, to competitors, to critics, to overseeing authorities, and set up conversations and information exchanges to enhance the transparency of its purposes as is increasingly demanded by the public? Is a stakeholder program driven by strategic business goals or just by ad hoc emergency? Does the company have a validated idea about what others think about them, about the perceptions, and is that underpinned with research data? Does the company go beyond the obligatory CSR activities and provide informed, interesting and credible points of view? Does it integrate criticism and challenging comments into its own thinking? Who owns the stakeholder relationships in the organization? Is there a permanent interaction set up, both off and online, allowing for early engagement and fine tuning of messages based on feedback?

This may all look like an almost impossibly vast wharf on which to labor, but with a systematic and sustained way of handling the relationships, it becomes all the more feasible. The H+K methodology and the toolkit we are pulling together facilitate that task greatly. No company can afford to be isolated from the community in which it operates and from the authorities that overlook it. Organizations need legitimacy and therefore must engage with the public. Our PA teams can help provide that.

Thomas Tindemans
Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Global Public Affairs Practice Director