Stakeholder engagement – listening is more important than speaking

By Posted in - Listen & Stakeholder engagement on May 17th, 2017 0 Comments

Those of us working in marketing and communications have probably all experienced the horror that comes when a rogue member of staff from elsewhere in the organisation says something unguarded and it turns into a huge story – and this occurrence is even more likely in the modern world of social media.

But the reverse is also true – we’ve all likely been guilty at one time or another of focusing only on our own little world, and not thinking about how what we do can affect the other people we work with.

Our own little world

I’ve recently been thinking about this in terms of the strategies we’re asked to work on for our clients. We’re often involved with the development of social media, digital, or content strategies, and these aren’t just about what you communicate to the outside world. Your content strategy can – and should – affect all aspects of your business or organisation.

It’s not uncommon to find that a content strategy has been created entirely within the communications team, with little input from anyone else. Maybe the brand personality has been developed without consulting the staff who will have to represent that brand in person – how accurate is that going to be?

Employees should feel comfortable with the corporate messages they’re communicating. The internal environment into which a communications strategy or social media policy is released has to be positive. We can’t just dictate to people what they should say, especially if those attitudes are not reflected in the people who work in our organisation.


Staff and stakeholder engagement can help with this. We’ve found that getting key people from the top and bottom of an organisation involved early on in any changes can create immense goodwill towards such projects. What doesn’t work is steamrollering them with top-down ideas that don’t reflect their own views.

One of the reasons this is so important is that these people will have far more understanding of how any changes will affect the day-to-day operations of the business than we will as management or marcomms staff.

The converse of this is that when stakeholder engagement is successful, it reduces the stress and pressure on the comms team immensely. If it works, if people truly adopt the content strategy/plan/personality/etc, then you don’t need to worry about controlling or monitoring what they say – they’ve bought in, and you know you can trust them.

You should be able to allow people to engage with customers, students, whoever, without worrying about what they’re going to say.

Good internal comms leads to good external comms, as staff know what’s happening and know what kind of thing they should be talking about.

If you’re worrying about what your staff might say or do, does that suggest that employees have not bought in to your vision? Why is that? Were they given enough input into the process? Did you decide on the wrong appraoch?

The little train that couldn’t

Sometimes you can’t talk about things – commercial sensitivity, legal issues, etc – but otherwise what unneccessary restrictions have you put in place? If you’re trying to be open and helpful, can you actually do that in your external comms?

I’m going to highlight a quick example of a company where I think this connection hasn’t been made successfully. Let’s look at… Virgin Trains East Coast.

Now, I actually like Virgin. I’ve generally had good service from them, I’ve had refunds in the case of late trains, and I like the way they approach their social media activity. But there’s an interesting disconnect between the engaging social media presence and the actual ability of those behind the scenes to help customers.

Virgin Trains East Coast has some laudable aims:

… and the people behind the social media accounts really try to adhere to those goals – they’re helpful, they respond to complaints, and they try to offer a resolution, and they seem like humans all the while. But in a lot of cases, they simply can’t do what’s asked. They can’t rebook a train for you or sort out your failed wifi connection. Instead, they need to pass you to another team, via email or phone.

While there might be practical reasons for this – reasons that no doubt sound very sensible to those in the business – it creates a disconnect between the stated goals of the company and what the customer actually experiences. The company says it is listening carefully, delivering unbeatable service and righting wrongs, but if staff on the front line are not actually able to solve those problems the customer is left with the feeling that these are just words.

Those staff know that they can’t solve all their customers’ problems. Did they have the opportunity to tell those writing the content on the website that this was an unachievable goal? Or was this feedback ignored? In either case the lofty aims of the communications strategy have been let down by real-world barriers that could have been highlighted by the staff involved.

That’s the important thing about stakeholder engagement: it’s not just a hoop to jump through, it can be the key to a successful project. And if you’re worried about hearing negative things from your staff, then that’s even more reason to do it – you want to make your staff feel better, right?


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