If you want to gain from engaging with knowledgeable stakeholders, Toby Webb has some easy ground rules to follow

Recently I had yet another email asking me to engage with an organisation about its work on business ethics and sustainability. No problem in theory. Always interested to help.  

However, the email was pure “push” communications: “Let’s set up a call or meeting so I can tell you all about us and our fabulous work.”

No self awareness, no seeming thought of the key factors in engagement: “How can I genuinely find out what this person thinks, promote what we do, and get some useful feedback at the same time?” It was just a sales pitch.

Rather than whinge about it I’m determined to be practical. Easy to mock, harder to suggest alternatives.

So here are my rules for effective engagement in corporate responsibility/sustainability when you set up a meeting with stakeholders, or have a face-to-face chat:

1) Don’t call them an opinion former when you contact them. It sounds vacuous, because it is. Anyone with any taste and intelligence will be annoyed to be put in that PR box.

2) Don’t call yourself an opinion former. Or a thought leader. That’s even worse. It reeks of the guy or gal standing in a bar saying “as an entrepreneur …” You cannot call yourself it, and perhaps should hope that others don’t call you it.

3) Engage on something specific. General performance, multiple issue engagement is too scattergun. If you want to talk to someone effectively, talk about one thing, not seven, or three. You don’t ever start a successful conversation with someone by saying “I want to speak with you about five things”.

4) Bear in mind their job/incentives. Why would they want to talk with you? What’s in it for them? What are they interested in that you can give them some more of? Simple rule, but lots of people fail to follow this one.

5) Make it a two-way pitch. Again a simple point. Ask them if they can make time for an interesting conversation on a theme, rather than feedback on your work.

6) Give them something useful. This could be a nugget of data or info that’s not widely known, or a bit of industry gossip. Everyone, particularly “opinion formers”, like to know who is going where, or what’s happened with company X. If you want authentic feedback, you need honest conversation.

7) Don’t bullshit. We all know every organisation has challenges, so don’t pretend everything is fine. We all know it’s not, so give a little, and perhaps gain more in return.

8) Don’t just slate your competitors. Lots of companies do this when you meet them privately. It’s tiresome. You know if they went to the competitor they’d say the same about the company they used to work for, when you hear this negativity.

9) Remember intelligent insight is useful. One very respected head of sustainable business I know is critical of competitors when we meet, but tempers that with self awareness, criticism and insightful analysis of what competitors get right. That’s really useful.

10) Don’t whine about NGOs. Yes they annoy you, yes they can be inconsistent. Sharp analysis is one thing, whinging is another. Hard to do, but refraining from whining builds credibility with “opinion formers”. Give them credit where it’s due, focus on solutions, we all like those.

11) Follow up and stay in touch. I’ve had loads of meetings (hundreds probably) in the past 12 years from organisational representatives who wanted feedback, or perhaps just someone to talk with. I can’t have been obnoxious in all of them, but many times there was no follow-up, no attempt to stay in touch. Only engaging when it suits you or when you need to tick a box breeds cynicism, like that “friend” who only wants to have a drink when they need something, or when they are bored.

Granted, this is all fairly obvious stuff. Yet so many attempts at stakeholder engagement seem to ignore the basics. That makes it feel like low level compliance, “engagement because we said we would, and we need to say we did in the CR report”.

Yet with a few tweaks, and a bit of time from some experienced managers, “opinion former” engagement can clearly be a very useful way, if done right, to gain some cost-effective insight into how the company is perceived and some of the risks on the horizon.

Toby Webb is founder of Ethical Corporation and Stakeholder Intelligence. He blogs at http://tobiaswebb.blogspot.co.uk

CR Strategy  stakeholder engagement  Sustainability experts 

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