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Our Founder and MD, Jo Field, recently shared with CIPR Influence Magazine her tips for successfully engaging your stakeholders......

No matter what type of organisation you work for, or what type of project you’re getting involved in, stakeholder engagement should be a key priority for all public relations professionals. But while it’s important to engage your stakeholders on major public-facing projects, it’s also important to ensure that you engage as early as possible. If you don’t, you miss the vital opportunity to shape your project around the stakeholders’ different requirements. That ultimately means that you run a much greater risk of your project failing because it doesn’t deliver the desired results. 

Stakeholder engagement is about building relationships with the communities and groups who are interested in your organisation and its projects. It creates opportunities for decision-makers to hear from the people their decisions directly affect: the stakeholders themselves. 

When an organisation successfully engages its stakeholders, you often find that the stakeholders are willing to champion the cause and become cheerleaders for the project. Your company and your project team will always benefit from working with stakeholder advocates, and this is especially true in the sensitive environment we currently find ourselves in around COVID-19. 

If you’re not sure where to begin when it comes to stakeholder engagement, you may wish to start with these top five tips: 

1. Identify your stakeholders. The first stage of stakeholder engagement is carrying out a thorough mapping exercise to identify and understand your stakeholders and their views of your organisation, project or campaign. Consider their level of interest in your project and their degree of influence. 

At this stage, you should aim to discover new stakeholders or community groups that are currently unrecognised by your organisation. This means finding the best method to reach these groups, such as using existing relationships to lead you to new audiences. By doing so, you will ensure you meet the needs of the diverse range of customers and communities you serves. 

2. Develop your communications and engagement strategy in partnership with stakeholders. Where are we now, where do we want to be and how will we get there? Your stakeholders’ visions need to inform the whole process. 

Be collaborative throughout and use stakeholder feedback to develop your communications strategy. By ensuring stakeholders are informing and influencing the development of the strategy, you’re more likely to be effective in engaging them and meeting their needs. This will also make sure your stakeholders feel a sense of ownership over the strategy. True engagement is about shaping your strategy and plans in partnership with your stakeholders. Avoid deciding the outcomes before you reach out. 

3. Engage early and often. It’s important to make contact with your stakeholders early on in the project or campaign. Engagement should involve two-way dialogue, transparency and active listening. That’s the optimum to be aimed for. 

Remember that true engagement differs from consultation because it’s truly two-way and an equal partnership between the organisation and its stakeholders. Engagement is about everyone working together to achieve shared objectives. 

Stakeholders should be engaged at every stage of your project and have a real opportunity to influence what you’re doing. It’s always advisable to go above and beyond what the law requires. Turning a good project into a great one means embedding stakeholder engagement from the start and aiming to be an exemplar rather than just delivering the minimum legal requirement. Share initial ideas with trusted stakeholders and gain their perspectives, insights and expertise at the earliest possible stage. 

Because of the current situation with COVID-19, traditional townhalls and face-to-face engagement methods are not possible at the moment. If you’re running a public consultation, you will need to move your stakeholder engagement online. There are plenty of tools available to make online community engagement easy. Make sure you choose a digital consultation tool that is interactive and that enables full collaboration with stakeholders from the start of the process. 

4. Be innovative. Work with your stakeholders to come up with innovative ways to engage your audience and gain meaningful feedback. Importantly, the engagement methods must be co-created with stakeholders and must empower communities to make their voices heard. As an example, you could create youth panels or citizen boards to give your stakeholders a direct voice in your organisation’s policy-making. This can improve your reach among groups such as young people, who have distinct needs and may not be captured in typical consultations or political processes. But you should ask your stakeholders to help you decide which methods work best for them. Together, you can create innovative engagement solutions. 

5. Aim for two-way advocacy. One of the most important parts of stakeholder engagement is building advocacy among your stakeholders and, in turn, championing your stakeholders’ views within your own organisation. Advocacy is built up over time and is the result of carrying out meaningful engagement to deliver results that work for everyone. 

Engaged stakeholders are more likely to amplify your messages and champion projects that they have created with you. This is important for protecting your organisation’s reputation at all times, and especially at the moment. Advocacy works both ways, and it’s important to make sure the right people in your company hear the information and expertise from your stakeholders, at the right time. Champion your stakeholders’ needs and be their advocate internally, as well as making sure your organisation listens and responds. This will help to build relationships and trust over time. 

This article was originally featured in CIPR Influence Magazine Q3 2020