Those in corporate communications environments know that there are clear differences between customers and internal stakeholders like staff, management, suppliers and contractors. Recently, I was asked to explain the difference between members and internal stakeholders. A good question — one that I wish I’d answered in greater depth. So here I go, but the answer isn’t all that simple.
For the non-PR audience, a stakeholder is any person, group or organization that has a stake in an organization because they can affect or be affected by that organization’s mission, goals, actions, objectives and policies. The definition includes individuals who may not realize or care about what the organization is doing. Thus, it includes groups and individuals that the organization must inform/engage in order to achieve its objectives.
The simple answer (yeah, I know I said there wasn’t one) is that members and internal stakeholders play different roles and have different – sometimes conflicting – expectations from the organization. Crucially, expectations can change depending on the issue at hand, so what do you do when their expectations conflict?
Begin by building a stakeholder relations framework to establish if there are gaps in understanding between what you’re doing and what each stakeholder expects. Prioritize stakeholders in terms of their legitimacy, power and urgency on issues. Identify common ground using two-way communication and develop strategies to resolve the crisis, or at least focus on the most critical stakeholder(s) first.
An SR plan generally includes linkages so that everyone understands a stakeholder’s function (Rawlins). In this case, members enable the organization. Enabling stakeholders make it possible for the organization to exist. But members also have expectations and a direct interest in what internal stakeholders (like staff, management and consultants) produce. Internal stakeholders provide the functional input on behalf of the membership.
Why and when does it matter?
1) In issues and crisis management. Each stakeholder has different general and specific expectations from the organization, and those expectations will sometimes conflict. The key to successful issues management lies in finding common ground and ensuring that stakeholders are prioritized according to their legitimacy, urgency and power. If you can’t please all of the people all of the time, then at least an organization should be able to monitor how decisions are likely to affect key stakeholders.
2) For measurement purposes. To the extent that it is possible, an organization should always be working to reduce gaps in awareness, understanding and engagement for each of its stakeholders. Knowing who they are and why they care is the first step in determining whether you’re on a path to achieve your objectives. Without knowing the difference, a gap analysis (are we meeting their needs? Why or why not? What can we/are we prepared to do if not) is impossible.