New methods, same principles for stakeholder engagement

29 May 2015, Blog

Technology has created many new ways to engage the public, which can be used to great effect when communicating about matters that are important to them.

Tools to monitor, listen and respond to conversations pose development and capacity challenges for organisations who need to reach their stakeholders in ways which are appropriate to them.

Mastering these tools is only part of the challenge however. Although it’s tempting to think that social media has changed everything, the old principles of openness, transparency and responding  to public concern are more important than ever on social media.

We explored these changes at an event at our Bristol office, which looked at the ‘new era of stakeholder engagement’ with colleagues from the legal, development and planning sectors.

Below are the slides I presented at that session, with the notes I used to talk through the presentation (I went into slightly more detail on the night).

Thanks to Drew Aspinwall, who gave an excellent example of how engagement is being used to support one of the country’s most successful large scale housing projects at Cranbrook in East Devon.

New era of stakeholder engagement – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Slide #1. In the 11 years I’ve worked in PR, the pace of change has been extraordinary.

Tools and techniques abound, and people spend a great deal of time trying to work out which of these are suited to their engagement campaigns.

These tools are hugely useful to those of us who work with the public. But they need to be aligned with a clear plan and an open approach, grounded in the needs of your audience, to help you meet the challenges that digital presents and make the most of the opportunities too.

I’m not going to preach about how digital media will be the answer to any engagement challenge. One thing it can never do is replace the on-the-ground face to face contact that we all know is so important.

But, things are changing at a rapid pace. This presents challenges and opportunities for engagement projects.

These are some of the aspects this presentation will briefly touch on. I hope this provides some insight into how this can be built into engagement campaigns.

#2. This isn’t about the new tools available (of which there are hundreds).

This isn’t about the social media networks we use.

This isn’t about bloggers or blogging, or new media versus old media.

Nor is it about smartphones or apps.

All of these are fair considerations, but they aren’t the key question.

They’re simply a means to a more important strategic aim.

#3. This is about the core principles of public relations. It puts the ‘public’ back into public relations by putting people at the core of our activity.

It is about listening to what people are saying about your project, proposal or brand and responding to this in a meaningful and transparent way.

This isn’t easy, and it takes time; but it’s a vital part of building important and lasting relationships needed to build mutual understanding and support that sustain successful engagement activity.

#4. One of the biggest challenges organisations face in this ‘new era’ of engagement is the real and vivid decline in trust in those people who have traditionally been spokespeople for campaign activity.

People don’t trust our leaders, or the media, like they used to – and they’re quick to point this out. The #EdStone launch – an example an old media relations wheeze (the pledge card set piece) – was lampooned on social media and is an example of where leaders seem to be struggling to ‘get it’.

This phenomenon is highlighted in the Edleman trust barometer, which suggested that less than half of people surveyed trusted government. The research marks Britons out as being only marginally more distrustful of its politicians than countries like Argentina, Turkey and Russia. Business leaders, media and charities also fare badly.

This poses a challenge for campaigns. A more open and trustworthy approach would certainly help to address this! There are other things to consider too.

#5. The general election highlighted many other examples of how not to do social during the last campaign. Content from the main parties stuck doggedly to a command-and-control approach that just about works with traditional media but is ‘called out’ on social and won’t cut through to anyone other than the converted.

At a time when our trust in the ‘party line’ is at a low point, there is a real need for content to be authentic, relevant and honest.

Some organisations are taking the opportunity to give those who are trusted within their organisations, like the staff on the ground, the tools and training they need to engage in genuine human conversations.

Eg: Dave Throup, an Environment Agency area manager, who acts as a local voice giving up-to-date updates on what’s happening in his area in Herefordshire and Worcestershire. His Twitter feed has built up a large following, thanks to the genuine and human touch he provides to his employers’ activity.

Coming back to the trust issue again, Dave and people like him work well on social media because he’s a trusted source of information, authentic and genuine.

Thanks to Dan Slee for sharing this example in a blog post in 2014.

#6. New patterns of influence emerging beyond our traditional offline stakeholder groups. The lines between these groups are blurring.

In addition to those groups who have traditionally been seen as ‘key stakeholders’, new influencers are emerging and communicating with each other.

These groups are fluid than and are not distinct from each other. The line between external and internal is blurring and the old established networks may not be plugged into these important conversations about your campaign or maybe bypassed altogether.

The ability to understand these dynamics and build relationships with these emerging and changing networks matter. There are tools than can help you to do this….

#7. “The key with social listening—just like listening in real life—is to identify and analyse the meaningful parts of a discussion.”


For organisations to respond to their audiences in a genuine way, they must first excel at listening. They tune in to the right conversations, by using the right tools, and then are able to respond and engage.

Social listening platforms provide the basic capability of systematically collecting online conversations about a specific phrase, word or brand. This can be done around a local area if required and is able to provide insights through the analysis of those conversations which can be tracked by geography or keyword.

Identify conversation leaders and influencers within a local area: we have done this recently on projects like Connecting Devon and Somerset, which is a government-funded broadband roll-out across the two counties delivered by local authorities. We’ve put in place systems to track and respond to local conversations, which has helped to drive an increase in positive online sentiment towards the work.

#8. Engagement can take place at a hyper-local level, thanks to the ability to communicate with people by age, postcode or area of interest.

Talking to the people who’ll be interested in what you are saying is more possible and will deliver added insight that can be used to shape your activity.

Digital campaigns can be carried out by postcode, age, gender or area of interest like housing, sustainability, area of employment for example.

#9. A couple of key points to close, to highlight the challenge that organisations must face up to in this new era.

Audiences are more interested in the way an organisation behaves rather than what it says or what is reported about it the media.

We need to ensure the engagement is used to have a conversation with stakeholders and not for posting propaganda.

#10. Thanks for listening and keep in touch!

JBP Staff Member

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