Stakeholder Engagement – The Complex Web of Influence

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It’s hard to find an organization that disagrees with the idea that stakeholder engagement matters to organizational success. However, very often, while the concept exists in an organization’s vocabulary, it is an afterthought in strategy and action.

At the heart of Public Relations, lies stakeholder engagement. However, over the last few decades, as the definition of Public Relations reduced to media relations, most practitioners started to conflate media relations with stakeholder engagement, rather than as one part of a larger equation.

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It’s hard to find an organization that disagrees with the idea that stakeholder engagement matters to organizational success. However, very often, while the concept exists in an organization’s vocabulary, it is an afterthought in strategy and action.

At the heart of Public Relations, lies stakeholder engagement. However, over the last few decades, as the definition of Public Relations reduced to media relations, most practitioners started to conflate media relations with stakeholder engagement, rather than as one part of a larger equation.

The PRactice is working to change this by evangelizing stakeholder engagement as the way for organizations operating in India to participate and communicate with their ecosystems. Over the past fifteen years, we have helped a number of clients successfully transform their approach to Public Relations by partnering in their journey from media relations to holistic, sustained stakeholder engagement that strengthens employee engagement, enables leverage relevant academia and industry bodies, involves community development and integration, and builds understanding of government and policy influence.

In this Best PRactice white paper, we share our knowledge and experience of that journey, from establishing why organizations need stakeholder engagement, to detailing how they can devise, execute and monitor a plan, to recommending best ways to do so. In between, we also cite instances from our engagements to demonstrate how integral a proactive, concerted, sustained stakeholder outreach program is to Public Relations success.

The Consideration for Stakeholder Engagement

The world around us is changing. The question is how well are organizations preparing for, adapting to and forecasting changes its stakeholders are experiencing. Are stakeholders fuzzy masses that are broadly spoken to? Are personal relationships being mistaken for organizational relationships? Are perceptions of power and influence driving stakeholder engagement, favoring some while ignoring others?

In 2013, while working with a seed manufacturer, we realized the strategy of influence through media relations alone was not gaining ground with the company and the marketer. The real influence in the sector was being wielded by statutory bodies, bureaucracy, activists, non-government organizations, and farmer associations. This is when we introduced the concept of stakeholder engagement to the client. After several rounds of conversation, discussion, research and presentations to the Board, it was decided that the company would broad base its Public Relations mandate to include stakeholder engagement. This marked the beginning of a systematic stakeholder engagement strategy, which today has evolved into an active dialogue between the organization and a diverse audience of decision and opinion makers, leading to bold and confident measures in the company’s communication strategy. The media relations campaign that formed the core of the Public Relations exercise has evolved into a more meaningful and impactful campaign that continues to see scientists, influencers, industry bodies and academia come together to speak on behalf of the industry as a result of this program.

An Approach To Stakeholder Engagement

A marathon, not a sprint successful stakeholder engagement strategy, like any other, stands on a sound foundation of alignment with organizational objectives, respect for mutual interests, buy-in from top management, and an atmosphere of trust and respect. And then of course, there’s the actual plan that can be achieved by a thorough understanding of the stakeholders.

Setting the objective:

An organization’s stakeholder engagement activities must – absolutely – align with its overall objectives. An intensive stakeholder audit is recommended to ascertain the views, perceptions and understanding of the organization, the sector and the environment in which it operates in. The audit may not always result in new insights; at best, it will validate the organization’s thinking and direction leading to realistic strategies.

Once the alignment is established, it becomes easier to articulate the goal for stakeholder engagement for a given period of time – what it must attain at a minimum, and also what is outside its scope. The latter is particularly important, because over-ambition is usually a recipe for under -performance. A useful barometer is to ask where the organization hopes to be in its stakeholder relationships, a year or two from now.

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Identification and Analysis

It follows from the above that some stakeholders are more important than others. It is important to recognize that this step in the process of stakeholder engagement planning reflects organizations’ understanding of its ecosystem. This needs to be reviewed periodically, especially by businesses in flux, because stakeholders can often change. For instance, it might be necessary to consider the concerns and demands of a small but highly dissatisfied group ahead of those of a larger but less agitated stakeholder set, in order to prevent a future crisis. As a result, it is important to assess and evaluate the “importance” of stakeholders regularly and not endear an organization to a perceptible important group while ignoring others.

The process of identifying stakeholders may seem easy at first, but a serious attempt can be daunting, at times. Stakeholders must be people and not institutions / organizations.

Stakeholders must then be prioritized on the basis of their influence to impact business objectives. Their motivations, interests, affiliations and legacy must be researched and documented. It is advisable to maintain a master list, but pick sets of stakeholders based on business objective. E.g. Stakeholders must be shortlisted based on region / markets critical to the business and expand the list based on business priorities.

A nuanced engagement with stakeholders

At this stage, it is useful to create a stakeholder map, depicting the interactions of each stakeholder(s) with the organization as well as inter-stakeholder engagement. This can bring clarity of purpose and also highlight any wrong assumptions about the relative importance of each stakeholder type to the organization.

At The PRactice, we follow a rigorous process of stakeholder identification, wherein potential stakeholders are passed through an objective filter of relevance, reach, stature, impact and results, to ascertain their relevance. Stakeholders are then mapped on a “power versus interest” grid as depicted below. Finally, a nuanced engagement strategy – based on the core objective – is conceptualized and deployed for the stakeholders in each quadrant. The results are reviewed with the client at regular intervals, and these are used to decide the next course of action.

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For instance, for the company mentioned earlier, we developed and continue to implement an elaborate information campaign – content development, media stories, direct stakeholder meetings, scholarly articles, surveys, field trips, event participation and more – to build engagement with various stakeholders. We revisit the results of this campaign regularly, based on which we decide the direction and activity for the coming months: how many outreach meetings, what content on social channels, which influencers to connect with, and so on.

Strategy and Planning

A long-term, mediated approach quipped with relevant information – ranging from insights from the stakeholder audit, stakeholder analysis and mapping, one is ready to create a stakeholder engagement plan. Stakeholder needs are rarely congruent across groups, and hence there is no single strategy that works for all. The organization will have to carefully balance its outreach approach to each group, customizing it to their expectations to the extent possible.

This is the crucial stage where onus for stakeholder engagement success is defined and clarified. Having a stakeholder engagement champion within senior management is critical to success. It is also generally a good idea to enlist support among the ranks by encouraging the growth of informal communities across the organization, which not only facilitates execution of the engagement plan but also evangelizes it within their respective networks.

It is time to revisit all legacy initiatives that are dormant or defunct, and focus on few, yet meaningful activities that forge enduring relationships.

The plan may be kept simple. In the first year, it is important to ensure what is committed is delivered. Stakeholder engagement is the proverbial marathon, and it is easy to label it ineffective when results are not seen immediately.

A stakeholder plan is not merely the stitching together of various activities. A sustained stakeholder meeting calendar must be drawn out, so officials from the organization are meeting identified stakeholders at regular intervals. They must be drawn into various activities, allowing for participation in conversations and initiatives that further the cause of the organization. Be prepared to shelve long standing initiatives or rejig marketing budgets to accommodate recommendations by relevant stakeholders because of their relevance to overall objectives. A word of caution: at no point must the organization fall into the trap
of “appeasing” stakeholder communities given they have varied motivations and interests; decisions must be based on their impact on organizational objectives.

Stakeholder engagement is rarely uninterrupted smooth sailing. Once in a while, a conflict between organizational and stakeholder interest is bound to surface. The engagement plan must anticipate such situations and put in place a clear process for dealing with them.

Problems usually arise when the two parties have opposing goals. Slotting the organization’s and the stakeholders’ objectives into financial, environmental, social and other categories can highlight any contrasts that might turn into a future source of conflict. Proactive, honest communication answering questions like what a certain decision will mean to the company, how it will impact jobs or what effect it will have on the local environment, can help diffuse tensions. Above all, it is imperative that the organization accepts the reality of the situation and communicates extensively while garnering the support of stakeholders, thus ensuring the voices of reason are heard.

At other times, conflict is simply the product of irreconcilable attitudes. In such cases, it is extremely important to build mutual trust and respect amongst the concerned parties before attempting any kind of resolution. In all cases – without exception – pointed, unambiguous communication is important.

Undoubtedly, there needs to be a formal mechanism for gathering stakeholder concerns and sifting the most important ones to inform the strategic planning process. In certain cases, the organization should also be prepared to take a brave standpoint that is clearly in favor of stakeholder interest – for instance recall a deficient product or act in a more transparent manner to regain stakeholder confidence. Obviously, these are decisions for
top management to take. But seeking and even acting upon inputs from stakeholders is not enough; it is equally important to keep them informed of the ways in which their feedback is being used, and the results it has produced so far. Also, stakeholders need to feel they are part of an emerging ecosystem coming together to complement, supplement and augment their respective objectives. Such an ecosystem is also beneficial to organizations because
it brings some predictability to stakeholder behavior, enabling them to mobilize allies and mitigate adverse developments at crucial times.


Governing interactions, while building relationships partner-stakeholder dynamics, which are usually outside the organization’s control, can foil even the best-laid plans. However, sometimes an unpredictable situation can throw up opportunities for new partnerships or collaborations that the organization could leverage to advantage. So even as they execute their plans, organizations need to monitor stakeholder dynamics and spheres of influence very carefully to discover opportunities early, as well as any potential sources of risk or discord.

Discipline is a key factor of success in the execution of stakeholder engagement strategy. Staying within target cost is arguably as important as staying on schedule. The communications budget is usually an early casualty of cost cutting maneuvers. Therefore, it is advisable to deploy financial resources in avenues which deliver visible or measurable return on investment, to demonstrate a case for continuance. Even when the budget is secure it is important to allocate the funds in harmony with organizational objectives.

For instance, when a provider of high-tech building automation, climate control and aerospace solutions approached The PRactice to help build stakeholder engagement, we aligned the strategy with the client’s overarching CSR goal of contributing to sustainable urbanization. One of the biggest initiatives on the agenda was to create a Vision Document for an identified city that would provide lawmakers and urban planners a ready reckoner for future planning. Another initiative focused on enlisting citizens’ participation in neighborhood improvement by inviting them to participate in a challenge where they would submit ideas that would benefit their city. Accordingly, a major share of the client’s stakeholder engagement budget went, not into an outreach campaign, but towards the contest prize money.

This was made possible by identifying key civic bodies, local government bodies and urban planning influencers who conceptualized and endorsed the initiative.

Programs with a multiplicity of stakeholders can get notoriously hard to manage unless governed properly. Since most engagements entail a number of stakeholders, of direct or indirect association, it is necessary to put a well-defined governance policy and process in place that sets out decision rights, responsibilities and program ownership. Here, it is managing relationships between partners and not so much project execution, which proves to be the biggest challenge. Regular update meetings, direct communication with partners, finding a middle path where great ideas abound, and walking the budget tightrope are important for the success of a multi-stakeholder campaign. Involvement of senior leadership is critical, especially with stakeholders of a certain stature who require peer-to-peer equations.

Measuring success

Align metrics with objectives

One of the biggest challenges that a stakeholder engagement program faces is to prove itself. Engagement is nebulous, which means it is hard to pin it
down in numbers. Perhaps this is why most organizations don’t use objective criteria to measure the performance of their engagement strategy.

But this does not mean they cannot.

The success of engagement may be deduced in a variety of ways, ranging from brand awareness/ interactions, business enquiries and endorsements to public sentiment, network creation and even job applications. The quality of media engagement and output is a useful indicator of how relations with the media are doing. And of course, an organization can always tell from the nature of its dialog with stakeholders, especially the ones that aren’t squarely in its camp.

The stakeholder audit is yet another powerful way of determining how a program is altering the status of engagement.

Now, the migration of engagement to social media has also opened up new possibilities for measurement. There are a number of tools out there measuring everything from website traffic and online influence to tone of conversation and social sharing.

Like everything else about stakeholder engagement, its metrics must also link back to organizational objectives. Therefore, organizations must prioritize the deliverables based on that premise. Once the metrics are formalized, they should be incorporated within the review and feedback mechanism.


The PRactice recommends stakeholder engagement as an integral element of business strategy. With conscious consumerism on the rise, a discerning stakeholder community,
and pervasive information, organizations must understand and empathize with their stakeholders. When opinions, both informed and otherwise abound, it is necessary to prepare the ground for voices of reason to emerge and stay at all times. Crises are an unavoidable part of the business cycle; however, what is avoidable is irrevocable damage to reputation. Stakeholder engagement requires patience, perseverance and a strong presence of mind, in addition to a seamless team within and outside the organization that is constantly thinking of the company’s reputation.

Unfortunately, Public Relations strategies of most organizations skew heavily towards media relations, while neglecting to build connect with other stakeholders. Based on our extensive experience in this area, we can say with confidence that an incomplete approach focused only on media will never entirely meet the objectives of an organization seeking to engage deeply with its public. That requires a concerted, sustained, well thought out and
executed stakeholder engagement strategy. At The PRactice, we are leveraging our collective knowledge and expertise to broaden the perspective of organizations on Public Relations, and to convince them of the need to engage regularly and meaningfully with their stakeholders, as a business organization, a model corporate citizen and a participative member of the local community.