Share this blog
Check out this new wordpress feature to integrate tweeting and blogging. As a relative newcomer to the potential of twitter, I think I’ll be using this tool a lot.
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.
Few issues ignite environmentalists the way the oil sands development (aka: the tar sands) does. Recently, a peer review study linked evidence of fish abnormalities to high levels of toxins and pointed to oil sands activity as a direct cause.
The companies fund a joint government/industry science-based environmental monitoring project called RAMP (Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program). RAMP includes representatives from local and aboriginal communities, environmental non-government organizations, government agencies (municipal, provincial and federal), oil sands and other industries, and other independent stakeholders.
RAMP is in damage control mode, and the Alberta government is in Toronto promoting the oil sands. It’s a perfect storm: Government and industry against community members and environmentalists in a battle for public support.
Question: can government and industry use PR to mitigate the damage?
Answer: depends where the gap in understanding is. If it’s between what stakeholders expect you do and what you are actually doing, then you have to change what you’re doing. If it’s a perception problem, then yes, communications can help, but only if you’re prepared to include all your critics and get ahead of this emerging, smoldering crisis.
As the debate heats up, latent stakeholders will become aware of the issue, and depending on the response from either side, they could begin to feel more urgency. The project has reportedly faced criticism in the past, but independent studies were not available. This time, the credibility of RAMP’s science is being challenged, and nothing could be worse for the reputation of an evidence-based program. Government will face increased pressure to respond, which may include dismantling the RAMP project.
Some are calling for an adult discussion to divide fact from fiction. As the author points out, no one is ‘telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. So maybe it is a perception problem, but that’s something industry and government needs to answer honestly.
Given the scope and horrific mismanagement of the BP oil spill disaster, almost nothing industry says will generate credibility. And governments (especially pro-oil Alberta) aren’t trusted on this issue either. So listen up: include your critics to find common ground and resolve the matter. If nothing else, a proactive approach will turn the volume down and limit the flow of misinformation.
PR experts: would love to hear your thoughts on this issue!