This would be my initial strategic communications salvo for 2021, and it dwells on a concept germane to an impactful public relations practice- the stakeholders. As a PR practitioner, the earlier you understand that you’re a middleman between an organisation or a brand and its audiences or stakeholders, the better for you. And your ability to understand the peculiarities of each stakeholder group is directly proportional to whether your communication efforts will be effectual or not.
Let’s leave PR a bit and briefly talk about simple interpersonal communication, like a public speaking context. In public speaking classes, we’re taught, emphatically, to always plan our presentations, and an integral part of such planning requires a thorough understanding of your audience and the key parameters that define them. It is believed that taking cognisance of these variables will help make your speech more effective. This basic communication truth also applies to public relations- just that it’s more complex and reflects a bigger scope.
Make no mistakes- your stakeholders are the people upon whom the success or otherwise of your brand is incumbent. The nature of your relationship with them can either make or mar your brand. Also known as publics, these are people who interact with your brand in one way or the other. Not managing them aptly spells doom for your organisation’s fortunes. Each stakeholder group has its defining characteristics, expectations and challenges, and as a PR practitioner, it is expected that you master the art of managing each group, speaking the language they understand, aligning expectations with your corporate goals and ensuring cordiality between the group and your organisation.
Many corporate crises have erupted from cracks or lapses in this organisation-stakeholder relationship. The PR specialist should be able to tell when this relationship is beginning to go south and when dissonance setsails. You’ll see the pointers and when you do, you investigate the source of the issue and develop a stakeholder engagement plan apropos to the concerned stakeholder group.
The stakeholders differ from organisation to organisation but your stakeholders’ chart will embody both internal and external stakeholders such as employees, shareholders, regulatory agencies, government, suppliers/vendors, customers, professional/trade unions, media, host community etc. Do not dismiss or relegate any of them- they are all critical to the existence of your organisation. And building and maintaining mutual lines of understanding with each group requires peculiar tactics. In this lies the value of public relations- being able to get both the organisation and its stakeholders on the same page consistently. It guarantees organisational success and growth. If you’re able to achieve this over time, it’s proper to describe you as a successful PR practitioner, for PR is, essentially, the science and art of creating bridges of rapport and managing relationships so that interests, expectations and objectives of the organisation and its stakeholders will exist in alignment. The PR professional creates a common ground for multiple interests to thrive for the good of all entities involved. So, your task is not limited to perception management but also managing stakeholders to ensure a supportive behaviour is always elicited from them.
For stakeholder management, it’s different strokes for different folks. For instance, when dealing with the host community, you need a strategic community relations plan to coexist seamlessly with the indigenes and dispel any likelihood of community activism or revolt against your organisation. For this, you’ll need to even liaise with the opinion leaders within the community to reach the youth for engagement. Oil and gas majors like Shell Petroleum Development Company, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Total, etc with installations domiciled in littoral Niger Delta communities, have a robust Community Relations Programme executed by PR specialists whose forte is community engagement.
If you’re dealing with a reputation melee, you need to engage the media across different tiers, holding parleys with multiple gatekeepers and media influencers to mitigate the negative narrative and stem up positive conversations. For the employees, an internal stakeholder group, you’ll require an internal communication plan to engage as well as convert them into strong brand evangelists and ensure they’re aligned to the organisation’s goals. You’ll need communication tools like a company blog, staff newsletter, utilising employee focus groups when need be, etc. The PR practitioner has to work with HR to achieve results here.
The point being made here is that while planning communications for your stakeholders, it’s advised you do some stakeholder mapping and analysis- delineate the stakeholders of your organisation, define their major parameters, ascribe a level of value to each group depending on the situation and impute specific message themes to each group ensuring that all themes tie to overall campaign idea and communication objective. Take a step further by also highlighting channels for reaching each stakeholder group as channel requirements also vary from group to group. If you’re targeting employees, it’s only natural to employ ‘controlled or owned media’, which are internal in reach and purpose. If professional unions or associations are the target audience, you’ll need to publish messages in trade, professional or industry-specific magazines- ‘paid media’. Also, part of the stakeholder planning will entail stating the timeline of communication for each stakeholder group.
Public relations, as I have espoused in previous pieces, is a disciplined enterprise and involves a lot of rigorous thought and strategy. It is this groundwork that lays the foundation for success, and part of that process is understanding your stakeholders to make sure you’re communicating with ample impact. PR is not just communication; it is impactful communication.
Stanley Olisa, a communications consultant writes from Lagos.