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Twelve ways of dealing with difficult stakeholders

A tricky question came up at a recent reputation and crisis management conference hosted by Ethical Corporation and Useful Social Media in New York.

“How” asked many senior corporate communications delegates, “do you deal with people who have no interest in dialogue?”

There are a couple of facets here. Yes there are some foes, online or otherwise, who just hate their opponents (perhaps your company) intractably.

But there are others who may appear to be similar, but who can be convinced to change their minds.

How do you tell the difference?

And when does one group become the other?

Thorny questions with which to wrestle.

One simple response voiced by company managers many times last week is to argue that sometimes, particularly with regard to social media, it’s best not to engage vociferous opponents once it becomes clear dialogue is not of interest.

As long as they don’t break the published commenting rules, let them sound off, sooner or later they will get tired and move on.

Either that, or they will lose credibility with real customers and other stakeholders by being seen to beat the same drum over and over.

This is logical and appears often to work, if not always. And of course, social media and email is very different from the real world.

But for me the greatest opportunity is not the holy grail of swaying vociferous opponents, but the turning around of the views of annoyed groups or individual stakeholders who are upset but perhaps not permanently so.

They are the groups who could (usually not but sometimes) become advocates for your company, and not just on Twitter or Facebook.

So how might one address these groups? Every company has them.

Here’s some engagement tips, some brought home to me more than ever by the conference last week:

1) Be responsive: An obvious one, but the days of asking everyone to send a snail mail letter are long gone.

2) Be humbly genuine: Again, not rocket science but still a trick missed by many.

3) Show you actually understand the issue: Grievances can be complex. Grasping the real nuances is vital.

4) Demonstrate action: Show them you have a process towards an intended outcome.

5) Be open about complexity of solutions. Solving stakeholder problems is complex and not often your role as a business. Folks can be more reasonable if they understand the limitations of what one actor can really achieve.

6) Be honest about what’s realistic. Not over promising is one thing, but it’s different from managing expectations. Both are vital.

7) Be brave enough to push back when you have to. Standing up for company values is important. See point 10.

8) Show a human face: tell the story of how your firm is working on the problem: Nothing wrong with honesty about the chain of command and debate in your business when it comes to difficult issues (unless you don’t have one that is!)

9) Demonstrate commitment to collaboration with outside groups. Not sure with your annoyed stakeholder group A. Showing then how you work with groups B and C can help build confidence and shows commitment. It can also make group A understand your firm has a lot on its plate and create some empathy.

10) Point your customers/stakeholders to your explicit values statements. This is risky if they are not well written, but also an excuse to update or improve on them internally. It also enables you to talk about how you live your values during a disagreement.

11) Be patient, with a deadline. You can’t turn every annoyed person or group around, as discussed, and deadlines matter. But bear in mind that you are dealing with people and that’s an art, not a science.

12) Tell them they may need to compromise, and maintain your consistency about this. Sounds trite, and possibly repetitive, but consistency is key: respect is possible if friendship is not.

If face to face discussion of this sort of thing might be useful for you, then take a look here.


  1. Arian Ardie

    . . . and do it with a partner. As important as one on one discussions might be or the enforcement of a single gateway for communications useful for consistency I find it best to have support in these situations.

    It is very very easy to take comments out of context or to personalize them when dealing with someone that does not want to communicate. Usually what they are saying is we do not want to communicate until you acknowledge my stance, but I will do most anything to get you to do so. Having a third ear and most importantly a second mind can greatly help in these situations.

  2. Anna Jenkins

    You don't mention that the stakeholder might actually be right and that hearing what they have to say is what's difficult (granted they may not be delivering the message in the best way for you to hear it).

    Some of the most monumental and ultimately successful corporate sector changes regarding sustainability issues have come about because they actually listened to stakeholders who had a very valid point.

    This blog, as helpful and relevant as its top tips are, seems to presume a black and white situation of corporation = right, stakeholder = pesky and annoying at best and possibly plain wrong. My work with multi-stakeholder groups including NGOs, corporations and passionate individuals shows that this is rarely the case in reality but often the view held (by NGOs of their corporate stakeholders too even!)

    Dialogue is not engaging with people so that they "can be convinced to change their minds". Dialogue is dialogue; it's open discussion with a large element of trust, respect and real listening going on, speaking from the heart. In these situations we cannot usually predict the outcome except to say that if it is real 2 way dialogue then the place we get to will be far better than the starting point, certainly in terms of understanding of the other party, of ourselves and what potentially might be done.

  3. Arian, Anna, thanks for your valuable comments. Some useful insight there, and food for thought. Many thanks to both of you for commenting.

    Best wishes,