Julia King, Context: Keep your enemies close

Listening to the views of stakeholders means more than just cosying up to your friends.

Time and again we see companies falter when challenged by the 'outside world'.

In the midst of a crisis, they wonder why everyone seems to hate them.

It is tempting to blame the audience but the fault must lie with the company's understanding and its comms. This is the situation Guy Esnouf describes in his candid explanation of E.ON's painful experience.

Prioritising the issues to deal with can be difficult. Certainly concentrate on what really matters, but reputational issues are volatile. Tax was barely on the horizon for most companies but suddenly flared up last year. Constant vigilance is essential.

The best defence is to understand what will make people angry and avoid being in a vulnerable position. Companies must be able to identify the issues that will be important, not just those that are in the news now. That means listening to the 'chatter' and engaging those stakeholders that care most and know most about these issues. It is often the more challenging stakeholders who can help a company learn most about how to protect and enhance its reputation. It is not enough just to cosy up to groups that are relatively friendly.

The term 'stakeholders' does not just mean NGOs. Customers, consumers, employees, investors, policymakers and academics are all potentially important stakeholders. Find individuals who will represent the views of all relevant groups and work out the best ways to interact with them. Some groups may refuse to talk but you can listen to what they say to others.

Bringing people together as a group for face-to-face meetings can be a particularly effective use of time and provide good dialogue leading to personal, high-value interactions. This builds long-term relationships that are mutually beneficial - it's important that stakeholders feel they gain from the time they invest. If it is not practical to get people together, phone calls and technology can work almost as well. But true engagement does involve old-fashioned conversation: speaking and listening.

While two-way conversation is the aim, listening is the most important part - this is not the time to push your own messages hard. And sadly, companies sometimes listen but do not hear.

Using a neutral facilitator who is independent of the company and the interest groups not only helps to defuse tensions but also ensures that everyone can air their views and have them properly represented. This is especially important because feedback from stakeholder meetings can have a dramatic effect on the thinking of senior managers.

Remember that engagement is not an end in itself. It should lead to action, so the information gleaned must be fed back to colleagues who have the power to act. Even better, involve them as observers so they hear the views first hand. That way they see the strength of feeling and can't deny the uncomfortable truths.

Like all relationships, you must keep working at this kind of dialogue. Keep in touch with people, let them know how you're responding to their feedback, invite them to events and look for ways to contribute to their work. That way, you build trust and can continue to look to them for advice.

If you are in the eye of a storm, stakeholder engagement can seem like exposing yourself to even more danger. But there's no doubt that even the most critical stakeholders have a vital role to play in helping you understand how to manage reputations and deliver business success.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

How would you deal with an assault from UK Uncut on your clients?

Ensure understanding of the UK Uncut perspective so the right issues are addressed. Acknowledge the complexity of the issues, avoid any arrogance or frustration, and employ some humility if appropriate, without caving into unreasonable demands. Emphasise the contribution the business makes to UK plc.

Which film title best sums up the spirit of your agency?

The Holy Grail, because corporate responsibility, sustainability and reputation are things you constantly seek; your work is never complete.

Julia King is managing director at Context Europe.

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