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Stakeholder engagement plan: how to increase the proactive engagement of the company

Business doesn’t exist in a bubble – your organization is in a contract with your stakeholders; and with society. In the dark years following the credit crunch, this was starkly apparent, as culpable companies scrambled to mend broken trust and reframe their reputations. That is why it is necessary to have a Stakeholder Engagement Plan.

In their rush, some tripped up: short-term, profit-driven businesses failed to recognize what was needed in the reshaped environment – a new normal defined by interconnectedness and hyper-transparency, with no tolerance for spin and reputation management: such ploys went unsold, and trust couldn’t be regained.

The survivors played a longer game, aligning their purpose with stakeholder imperatives, and embodying a set of clear, positive values, which formed the foundation of a contract with society. And they communicated all of this through stakeholder engagement strategies.

In the eye of the stakeholder

Effectively utilizing stakeholder intelligence is at the heart of such engagement. Reputation is in the eye of the stakeholder; every business has multiple corporate images depending on the audience they’re facing, and without a solid engagement plan, the things that make you attractive to one may repulse another.

For businesses, and particularly for the corporate affairs function, the key lies in understanding how different stakeholders feel about you, and the inherent risks and opportunities; and beyond that, proactively building engagement plans for each stakeholder to mitigate those risks and build upon those opportunities.

It has to be done on the front foot, and it has to be a proactive, structured plan, built on industry intelligence and analysis.

Janus, look away now

The central role of corporate affairs is creating a project plan for identifying who the stakeholders are and how to weigh their impact. They will not each wield equal force; some will only have an indirect effect on the organization by influencing primary stakeholders. Value analysis is needed to map out and prioritize stakeholders based on their likely influence.

Unsurprisingly, the companies with the most proactive engagement plans are found in the most heavily-regulated industries – pharma, mining – were meeting each project stakeholder’s standards is a requirement for staying in business.

Effective communications management requires listening to your stakeholders, through the media, social media; talking to them, either face to face or in primary research; understanding what they care about; and working out how to incorporate it into your company’s goals.

But beware becoming two-faced: followed through to its logical conclusion, this strategy risks making you appear like Janus, saying one thing to one audience while turning a contradictory face to another.

Signing up to engagement

It’s impossible to please all of the stakeholders all of the time, to identify the expectations and requirements most aligned to your core objectives. The corporate affairs function can win in stakeholder engagement by collecting and collating intelligence, sifting and prioritizing it, then refracting it through the interests and purpose of the company.

Stakeholder engagement is a core competency for today’s business. It is no coincidence that since the financial crisis, the companies who have signed such a social contract, who have seen less disruption and obstruction from stakeholders – from investors to regulators – and who have remained relevant throughout this past decade, are those who have joined the dots between corporate value and stakeholder needs.

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