During a conference I recently attended I was humbled by a common theme being presented. It was shaped around the idea that public relations specialists may have all the newest tools to engage with their stakeholders, however, they may be forgetting that the oldest tools are sometimes still the best. In particular, one-on-one communication is a vital part of the mix when engaging with stakeholders – in order to really get to know your stakeholders, bringing it back to the basics may give your company a distinct advantage.
Taking the time to listen and learn about your stakeholders’ concerns is often the best tool in the tool box. Although information sessions, open houses, focus groups and surveys are all valuable instruments to engage, inform and learn more about stakeholders, it may not always be enough.
At most information sessions or open houses, stakeholders receive key messages and are shown maps of proposed project routes. Throughout these sessions feedback is encouraged but often the questions and concerns stakeholders may have are not – or cannot be—fully addressed, or would be better addressed in a more personal setting.
Something that public relations professionals and stakeholder engagement specialists may sometimes need to be reminded of is how important relationships are. After all, relationships are the cornerstone of real communication. Building positive relationships in communities where you operate will improve the reputation of your business as a positive and trustworthy company. Having the option of one-on-one communication with stakeholders can ease anxiety or fears that stakeholders may have about a project and help build a base of support for your project.
To mitigate concerns, one of the speakers at the conference suggested the following to engage with stakeholders:
1. Ask questions – get to know the stakeholder on a personal level and ask for feedback. For example, do not bring maps that already have a fixed pipeline route. Instead, bring a map that has three routes and ask for their input on which one would be most beneficial to their lifestyle.
2. Bring curiosity – try to understand why a particular route would be better for this specific stakeholder, or what specific concerns this stakeholder has, be it cattle, crops or noise.
3. Social issues – learn how your company could really help out a particular community. Where would they benefit the most? Community development, leadership development or education? This could be support for a new summer swimming pool for the community to enjoy or a new paint job on the local elementary school.
Face-to-face meetings and one-on-one communication – personal communication – will always be the best way to communicate with stakeholders and allow them to feel the most valued. As professionals we should be doing more listening than talking. Sometimes in the midst of getting a project approved we may spend the majority of our time focusing on the small number of stakeholders who oppose the project and not enough time with those who support it.
So the next time you are planning an open house or information sessions, remember who your audience is and how your company’s image is being represented with each consultation. Every company has the chance to leave a positive, lasting impression on its stakeholders. Let’s try to put the relations back into public relations with each stakeholder interaction.
— Keeley Travland, Communica