It’s time to reveal chapter 14 - ten top tips for good stakeholder management that will stand the test of time, from #FuturePRoof contributor Liz Davies.
Find us on Twitter at @WeAreProofed.
STAKEHOLDER MANAGEMENT: NOBODY LIKES SURPRISES Liz Davies
· How to define stakeholders and develop a structure for meaningful engagement
· Why taking personal responsibility for finding answers to opportunities and challenges is so important
· How consistency and timeliness of message can build trust and influence with those who matter
Working in PR in healthcare is a highly challenging but equally rewarding role. The NHS is large, complex and one of Britain’s most cherished brands. It brings with it a multitude of internal and external stakeholders – all of which require attention and investment.
The intricacies of these stakeholder relationships need careful management, dedicated time and appropriate resource to create ongoing, meaningful dialogue and must be navigated wisely with strategic counsel.
For me, it epitomises what public relations is all about: ‘the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics’.
What does good stakeholder management look like in a world with countless and ever growing channels for communication and a myriad of audience groups with whom to connect? My top ten lessons are transferable to any industry or sector and to any team or individual practitioner, whether in-house or agency, and will be at the heart of successful strategies for years to come.
1. One size does not fit all
It sounds simple, but don’t underestimate the importance of detailed stakeholder mapping. Take time to segment and understand every audience with an interest in your business, product or service.
Each will require a tailored approach to help build effective two way relationships. Be thorough and think internal, external, local, national and international. This goes for staff too – how we engage ‘doctors’ (junior doctors, hospital consultants and GPs) is very different and tactics should be adjusted accordingly.
2. Understand what stakeholders think
What do your stakeholders think about your brand? If you can’t answer this question easily and with confidence then it’s time take a step back.
All too often we jump straight in with the ‘how’ without thinking strategically about ‘what’ we are trying to achieve. Carrying out benchmark research and regular perceptions tracking amongst stakeholders is vital to understanding how people think and feel towards your business and, crucially, whether or not your PR strategy is working. This requires continual investment and advocacy from the top.
3. Establish regular cycles of engagement
Successful organisations have regular and established processes for engagement with all stakeholders and embed these as part of routine business. Cycles of engagement will differ depending on the audience, but once expectations are set they should be stuck to no matter what - even when there is no news to share.
The very act of engagement signals your commitment to the relationship and the stakeholder’s importance to the organisation. It builds trust so that when questions do arise, people will come to you directly for answers, rather than feed any rumour mill.
4. Encourage continuous feedback
Giving people the opportunity to feedback (and encouraging them to do so) will keep your business at the forefront of its industry or sector.
Whilst some leaders may fear the unknown and potential for negativity, the smartest will harness the collective capability of stakeholders to spur innovation and creativity. This requires both formal mechanisms (see #3) and informal channels (see #6).
In a world of openness and transparency its far better to understand the good, the bad and the ugly about your brand as it unfolds and address any issues as they arise.
5. Timing is everything
For feedback to be effective it needs to be channelled in the right way and at the right time in order to inform strategic conversations. Creating a culture and environment in which stakeholders are able to influence at the highest level is important, but as PR practitioners and custodians of stakeholder relationships, we should instinctively know what needs escalating outside of routine business and equip our leaders with timely intelligence.
6. Take time to talk
In our busy lives of instant communication, 24/7 connectivity, competing business demands and day-to-day deadlines, remember it’s good to talk! Most of us are guilty of being smart phone addicts and use a plethora of technology to connect and share information but let’s not lose the art of conversation.
Taking the time to get to know your stakeholders personally and understand the issues that matter most to them will pay dividends when the going gets rough.
7. DIY and accountability
Ever feel bombarded with questions and no-one seems to know the answer? In times like this there’s a case for strong DIY and taking accountability for reaching out to your client, or different parts of your organisation, to understand the nitty gritty detail. Don’t think someone else will sort it – they won’t. By unpicking and answering tricky questions from stakeholders, we can gain real insight into issues that were previously oblivious and advise leaders accordingly.
8. Live your brand values
Whether representing a client or working in-house, how we interact with stakeholders on a daily basis should reflect the values of the organisation represented. We are in the business of reputation and should set standards for those around us to follow, viewing stakeholders as critical friends who can help businesses evolve and grow.
In doing so (applying DIY when necessary), PR practitioners very quickly become the ‘glue’ that sticks organisations together, breaking down silos between teams and responding to stakeholders’ needs as they arise.
9. Nothing stands still
Nurturing stakeholder relationships is a continual process which should be reviewed and refreshed in line with business strategy. A new venture, service or product launch, or unexpected event, will bring a whole new array of audiences to consider, as well as new questions from existing stakeholders – what does this mean and how will it affect me?
Not only do audiences change but so do the tools with which we communicate and engage. In fact, the only constant IS change and only by equipping ourselves as PR professionals to embrace and effectively manage change will we bring stakeholders with us.
10. Remember nobody likes surprises
The golden rule to live by on a daily basis – nobody likes surprises – not even the good ones!
Whether you are planning exciting developments or dealing reactively with an escalating situation, make sure stakeholders hear about it directly and in a timely way. Being on the front foot and geared up with processes to disseminate urgent briefings is critical and we are often the conscience of the organisation, thinking through the consequences of business decisions. Making sure people feel ‘in the know’ whatever the position will reap benefits for the brand in the long-term.
Liz Davies MCIPR is Marketing and Communications Manager at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. A passionate advocate of the NHS, she joined the healthcare industry in 2009 after starting her career working in agencies in Yorkshire and Newcastle. A multi-award winning professional, Liz sits on the North East CIPR Committee and was awarded the CIPR’s Outstanding Young Communicator in 2012.