• Author:Ben Jones
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Stakeholder management; serious relationships or a one night stand?

At election time you often hear the same complaint; “we only hear from politicians once every five years when they want something!”

Those MPs or Councillors who have been visible throughout their terms in office – turning up on wet Wednesdays for coffee morning with local community groups, attending long and dull school governor or local Council meetings, relentlessly appearing in the local newspaper to join the latest campaign for a new zebra crossing or against a proposed Tesco (it’s always Tesco or Starbucks!) – they get credit and votes when the ballot boxes are opened.

Those who appear every half decade once the election starting gun is fired, clad in rosette, cheesy grin from ear to ear, kissing as many babies as they can find before disappearing quickly again often get fired. And they deserve it.

What is the lesson here for communication professionals who help their organisations and clients with their stakeholder management? Having great relationships with your key stakeholders is a long term effort. It requires hard work, stamina and patience.

In my experience, organisations often make the same mistake as those pesky politicians- the only get in touch when they want something; help with a consultation, a supportive quote for a press release, someone to sit on a panel at an event or on an advisory board, the use of a logo or support for the latest CEO or Board pet initiative.

It can be even more brazen when dealing with politicians themselves – seeking their support to change the law or lobby government on their behalf or to give them a sympathetic hearing at a Select Committee. These leaders do not invest the time to build a relationship with the key individuals and organisations they may need and want to work with or do anything to help them with their agendas. As a result when they go asking for help they often find help cometh not. As Publullius Syrus said (over 2000 years ago); “The person who receives the most favours is the one who knows how to return them.”

If you want to have strong stakeholder relationships you need to do some simple things. You need to keep in touch and keep them updated on things they care about. Meet up, have a coffee, say hello by email, even when you have nothing you want or huge amounts to say. Send them a note about something you know they will be interested in but that might not directly help you. Retweet something they’ve said or like an update their shared on LinkedIn that they clearly feel strongly about and you liked when you saw it. It’s about give and take. Not just the latter.

You need to understand your stakeholder’s agendas and the challenges they face – which mean they sometimes take views and positions that are unhelpful to you. They may be in a tricky position – caught between competing agendas or loyalties. Good communications are two-way. They are based on understanding your audiences and crafting messages and approaches that fit best with them. The best way to do this is not to sit in a dark room and produce material alone but to talk with your key audiences (talking with means listening too!) and build your understanding of them.

You need to treat them properly – with respect and with courtesy. This sounds so obvious – almost patronising to mention it. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen CEOs, Chairs, Directors, NEDs or others talk to or about some of their key stakeholders as if they were employees in a big house, below stairs, 100 years ago. Just as bad – they talk at their stakeholders – Gladstone to Queen Victoria – in meetings or just about their agenda. I would love a pound for every time I heard a senior person say “I’ve brought my list” when they start a meeting with a key stakeholder. It’s not just about you!

These thoughts about how to cultivate and manage important relationships at work are just as relevant in the rest of our lives. Like all communications, they are about people and how we build trust and mutual respect. I wonder how many people asking for our votes over the next nine days bemoan the lack of trust in politics and politicians but are not prepared to put the work in. I wonder how they will get on when those ballot boxes are opened in the small hours, a week on Friday.