Trying to navigate the stakeholder world can be challenging for companies. However, following these simple guidelines can help lead you in the right direction

1. Humanize the Company

Companies, just like stakeholder groups, are made up of people. Unfortunately, they are often perceived as a big institution without a human face. Breaking this barrier is often the hardest part. Making time for conversations outside of business is important to humanize the company and build lasting relationships with external stakeholders.

2.  Informal > Formal

Especially in the first stages of stakeholder outreach, companies like to set up formal engagement processes. These do provide value, but can be very time and cost intensive. We find that where valuable relationships are most often built is through informal engagement. This can be over a casual cup of coffee or one-on-one call.

3.  Be Proactive, Not Reactive

Often companies come to us after a crisis.  “Greenpeace just propelled off our headquarters – what do we do?”  Engaging after a conflict is a reactive and much less productive approach.  Companies that are ahead of the curve are actively reaching out and addressing the concerns of their stakeholders.  Companies should always assume risk and have some sense of a crisis response plan.

4. Listening > Talking

So many companies want to “explain the brand” to their stakeholders.  A long-winded presentation isn’t a good approach, unless the stakeholders have specifically requested it.  Often groups just want a platform to air their concerns and feel they are genuinely being heard.  A 70 (listening) – 30 (talking) approach is a good rule of thumb.

5. Start with Areas of Common Ground

For example, a group may be attacking a company for its water consumption, but might be impressed with their carbon footprint goals.  Find ways to approach them on climate issues first, to build a positive relationship.  This way you establish common ground before tackling areas of conflict.

6. Don’t Sound like a PR Flack

Dry, robotic communications with stakeholders just create more distance and mistrust.  Flowery optimism sounds naïve or dishonest.  Formal statements that have been crafted by PR flacks or combed through by the company’s lawyers may seem like they lack transparency and open communication.  Speak in their language but be genuine to who the company is.

7. Social Media is Your Friend

…if you use it right.  Social media is an unprecedented opportunity to talk to your stakeholders in a whole new way.  Don’t always rely on traditional media, these are great channels to test ideas and get feedback.  Be genuine, humorous and encourage debate.  Here’s an example of how to do it right. This post from Future 500′s Communications Manager gives more tips on utilizing social media for stakeholder engagement.

8. Not All Stakeholders are Created Equal

Just like companies, stakeholders are different.  They don’t always agree or even work well with one another.  One might support you on an issue, while another attacks you.  You don’t have to engage every stakeholder, but just don’t assume that working with one group appeases all.

9. Designate an Internal Champion

An internal staff member responsible and, most importantly, passionate about engaging the company’s stakeholders is vital to create a long-term, sustainable program.  Having a hub of information for stakeholders and internal staff is important for information sharing, enhancing internal buy-in and especially follow-through.

10.  Identify the REAL Issue

Companies that are the most successful with stakeholder conflict are always looking at the bigger picture, getting down to the heart of the problem.  Sitting down with stakeholders that are attacking the company and trying to understand their campaign goals will:  1. Move the conversation away from the company to the actual issue 2. Move both parties towards a systemic solution and 3.  Help speed up a resolution