The failings of stakeholder engagement, five suggestions for managers

It’s report time again and our mail box at Ethical Corporation is starting to flood with press releases and PDF reports from companies, their PR firms and consultants.

The good news is that corporate responsibility reporting is improving all the time.

The smarter firms are starting to understand that a PDF report, even with some stakeholder voices in it, plus a press release, a website and hard copy mailing with a letter just does not cut it any more.

That’s why our reporting conference late last year was sub-titled ‘no-one reads your report, so what are you going to do now?’ as is a session at our big annual jamboree conference, the Responsible Business Summit, coming up on May 4-5 (with awards this year).

So reporting, which now at best, includes blogs, third party related reports, stakeholder panels, online debates, real-time corporate sites, NGO endorsements, twitter, facebook and so on in the social media space, is evolving much faster than in the past. But there’s a problem with who reads them, as we all know.

This will change over time, just not as quickly as many of us would like.

That aside, stakeholder engagement is at least, if not more tricky to get right.

Engagement is still an incredibly hard job to do well. Many external stakeholders know little about your business, or only care about a particular issue.

Hardest of all to engage, perhaps, are that mythical group, often profiled by expensive PR firms as ‘opinion formers’.

Sound impressive don’t they? That is until you realise they usually comprise anyone in the media, NGOs, governments, academics, and think tanks (did I miss a group?) who might talk to companies and who happens to be on a PR or internal communications database. People like me.

I get perhaps a letter a week sometimes (how quaint) and several emails in the same time period, approximately, informing me that I am such a person and so could company X or Y (via their PR or market research firm, or if lucky, CR consultant) ‘engage’ me in some way.

Some go as far to say that I have been ‘carefully selected’ to engage with them. What a privilege, to be chosen from thousands to give up time to a stranger. That’s often how it comes across. Not so warm.

I do tend to feel a bit of a fraud to be named as such. After all, Ethical Corporation reaches numbers in the low tens of thousands on the web and in print (I wish they were all print!) and most CEOs, even communications directors do not know us (the engaged ones do :).

I used to spend a lot of time engaging in the typical telephone calls/online surveys. The pitch is almost always that a donation will be made to charity. Occasionally one is offered a look at the summary of stakeholder comments.

There’s a few problems with this approach. Here’s why I now say no to being engaged this way:

1) Several times, I had to chase companies (or their agents, more often) to actually make the donations promised after the NGOs contacted me (I donate to small ones who keep track) to say nothing had arrived. I’m sure this was due to cock-up over conspiracy, but still, it left a sour taste.

2) The times I was sent a ‘summary’ of stakeholder views, almost all of the critical comments seemed to have been removed, or only the mildly challenging ones, plus the nice ones, were left in. So they had extremely limited value, if any.

3) When and if, follow up happens the next year, little reference is made to the previous process. No transparency is provided on who else is engaged, why, and the results of the engagement in terms of how they affected the report, or corporate strategy. In short: As a stakeholder, you can’t see what impact your input had.

So you feel a little like Bill Murray’s character in the film ‘Groundhog Day‘, repeating the same conversations again and again.

(These are usually: Why do you have no credible stakeholder voices in your report, how are they involved in the process, do they have any impact on business strategy, and if not, why not)

Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying all stakeholder engagement HAS to have an impact on your strategy. It can’t all the time, or you’d be bust. ‘Apply or explain’ is a good rule here.

4) Most importantly, trying to run a small business (or anyway), I am time-poor, and I don’t know that much about some of the companies that ask me to engage with them.

I tend to like to do a bit of research on firms before I form a view so I feel a bit fraudulent offering an opinion when I don’t have much time at all to look them up, do some reading, canvass opinion and form my own view.

That aside, stakeholder engagement with opinion formers is possible, of course.

So how can you best engage so called ‘opinion formers’ in the contents of your report to best effect?

Here’s a few thoughts:

A) Provide a reason to engage in more than cursory detail

Rather than have a PR firm or research firm contact your desired stakeholder group, why not a personalised email from a senior executive instead? The technology is there, they don’t even have to write or send it. But doing it this way makes your stakeholder feel more important, less like being an anonymous part of a process.

B) Do something different, have a big idea

Don’t use vague terms, like ‘start a dialogue with you’. As stakeholder we don’t know what that means. Why not say, ‘we’d like to know what you think of us, and we’ll tell you what others think too, unvarnished’.

More importantly, understand that a telephone or online survery just doesn’t cut it. Sure it will get your some quantitative data, but from disinterested folks who know little about your business and are likey, in most cases, to be going through the motions to get off the phone or finish their online survey. So what does cut it?

Well, a focus group with interesting peers, like those the consultancy Context regularly host. With a good lunch, stimulating conversation and networking, the stakeholder also gains, not just the company.

How about a breakfast seminar/roundtable? We’ve done these with PepsiCo UK. Invitation only discussion, again with peers and interesting people. NGOs, academics, think tanks, other companies, government folks. These really work, and can be written up. Here’s an example, and here’s the slides.

Thirdly, how about making that online survey into an online debate? We’ve done this with Vodafone, and it was fascinating. Hundreds of people engaged, Vodafone gained comments they would not have otherwise, and we all learned something.

C) Make that idea interesting, and deliver it well

Don’t make the engagement about YOU. Otherwise you come across as the pub bore. No-one likes the person who acts thus: “Well, that’s fascinating, but let’s talk about me…”.

Make it about the issues. With Pepsi, we made it about water issues. With Vodafone, about how the low carbon agenda presents an opportunity for technology companies.

That’s far more interesting than saying “let’s go over our health and safety stats in the report”. If you want to do focused engagement on your report, then pick a topic to major on, don’t make it the whole thing, it won’t work well if you do.

This point also refers to having a good moderator and facilitator. Simon Propper at Context makes his focus groups work because he’s great at engaging people and getting them to relax and speak their minds. Some people are not. I’ve been to some really painful focus groups where the lead consultant, or corporate bod, just didn’t have the skills.

D) Communicate it hard

This is key. Many many companies, particularly the CR departments, are frankly, crap at communications. Their communications are often haphazard, random, and poorly planned. I should acknowledge at this point that communications are of course, hard to do well.

But it’s worth really thinking through how you communicate the outcomes of your engagement.

My view is a short 6-8-10 page PDF briefing, well designed and written by an external writer, is the best way. Easy to do, and easy for people to pass on. Of course you can and should use the comments for your reporting, but no-one really reads that, as we know.

E) Show some outcomes from it, a month, three months, a year on, continue your work…

The following year, or quarter, use what what discussed last time, in whatever format, to inform the new area of engagement/debate.

That way you create a series of stakeholder engagement briefings, and you can talk about what you have done a result. Of course these go in your report, but if a series of briefings refer back to each other, then over time, you’ve created some valuable documents which chart both your course, and the views of the participants, on fast-moving topics.

The point of this post is to argue that your corporate responsibility outcomes are in many ways dependent on your inputs, as with many business processes.

So if your inputs are often poor (as many stakeholder engagement processes currently are) what chance do you have of decent outputs that can affect business strategy?

It’s very true that engagement is an evolving art, not a science.

But in between the macro model of surveys and questionnaires and the micro model of comments on your website and corporate CSR blog, lies a valuable hybrid model of focus groups, seminars, focused online and offline debates and virally-spread issue briefs that in my view, companies should spend a lot more time and money on than many currently do.

Give it a try, spend 5 or 10 K less on your CR report and invest 5-10K on one of the above, or two of them, see how it goes for you.

You won’t know unless you give it a go.

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