Engaging stakeholders is an art. Done well it can streamline the progress of a project, enhance a company’s reputation and build trust and respect within communities – invaluable when times are good, and even more so when things don’t go to plan.
UK Government intends to invest heavily in new infrastructure projects to kick-start the economy. This will result in increasing numbers of projects that need to deliver a well-thought out stakeholder engagement plan. To engage effectively, however, requires detailed preparation to identify who, what, why, when, where and how. Once underway, proactively engaging stakeholders must maintain the quality and flow of information through the appropriate channels and respond to their needs.
It is essential at the outset of a project that you identify stakeholders that you really do need to inform. Analysis of ‘the who’ is an important first step so take the time to do it thoroughly and to understand their drivers, challenges, pain points and needs. Stakeholders can be hugely diverse, can extend throughout the immediate area into local and neighbouring regions, and have national and international scope.
Closer to home, you may also need to inform project partners and staff. Involve these stakeholders and they can be powerful advocates who share information with their own networks and feel more valued by their employer. Know exactly who is involved and establish a suitable internal communication programme to keep your colleagues and partners informed.
There are a lot of ‘whats’ to get acquainted with. First and foremost, what is the project? Agree at the outset the project facts and develop key messages early to establish consistency across all communications.
Be clear about your objectives. A controversial infrastructure project seeking planning consent will have very different objectives and require a very different communication strategy to a welcome improvement to a local, much-loved green space, for example.
Understand the project’s strengths and weakness and what opportunities and threats will present themselves. Be prepared to celebrate the good and to effectively mitigate and manage the bad. Don’t expect to predict absolutely every eventuality, however, as projects always manage to come up with a surprise or two. So, be flexible and work with relevant teams to ensure stakeholders receive the most accurate and timely updates – good or bad.
Why do you need to communicate with specific stakeholders? Be clear about the role of the stakeholders identified. Before you draft each communication, know why the information is important to the project and why the stakeholder needs to know it. How will it affect or benefit them, and what action, if any, are they required to take?
Know when to issue communications. Plan out project milestones and identify hooks for good news plus activities with the potential to generate less favourable reactions. Good news could be the start date, large or local contracts agreed, and of course, news that a project is complete or open. Remember that it’s not just the project lead’s good news that can support a project. Contractors and subcontractors each have their own stories to tell. Maintain a co-ordinated approach to maximise the impact and reach of the good news. Stakeholders, including the media, prefer concise and consolidated communications. There really is little benefit in bombarding media outlets with multiple versions of the same story from a variety of sources that each fail to deliver the full picture.
If something goes wrong with a project, take a deep breath and be proactive. It is much better for stakeholders to hear the news from the ‘horse’s mouth’ rather than via the ‘rumour mill’ which, let’s face it, has a habit of exaggerating negativity to create a sensational story.
Reaching stakeholders may at first seem easy, but to choose the right channel for each stakeholder takes a little thought if project news is to cut through the vast quantity of stories communicated every day.
Some stakeholders benefit from a face-to-face meeting or a call to ensure they get the time and attention they need to fully understand the project. Group email updates are also valid for some stakeholders, although prepare to understand and comply with GDPR if you are compiling mailing lists and issuing updates via email.
Use a local venue or an online meeting platform to deliver information to large groups and, if recorded, the footage can be used widely and over longer periods of time.
Dedicate a website to the project as a central point for anyone looking for project information and updates. Digital content works well in partnership with a social media strategy – social posts can link back to content on the website and the website can signpost people to the social media channels.
Take the time to get to know key journalists. Brief them about the project and make sure the door is always open for questions. It is better for a journalist to come to the project manager for information rather than the local shop owner who might be great at spinning a yarn but is definitely not briefed with the facts.
And don’t rule out a good, old fashioned printed letter or newsletter which can be an effective way to cut through the ‘noise’ of social media, or to reach those stakeholders who may not engage online.
How will you know if you have done a good job? Set measurable objectives at the outset, identify the most effective communication channels, maintain records of activity and talk to stakeholders. Engaging with stakeholders is a two-way process and they are the ones who can confirm whether communications are meeting their needs or if a different approach would be beneficial.
A well-run stakeholder engagement programme will enable you to share accurate, meaningful and timely information and enable stakeholders to engage positively with a project.
But engaging stakeholders can achieve so much more. Sharing news based on fact and maintaining an open door for stakeholders to talk freely with project managers can prevent an information vacuum – a vacuum that could be filled with inaccurate and sensational information from the ‘rumour mill’.
Engaging proactively and effectively from the start of a project offers a great opportunity to strengthen links within a range of communities. Open and honest communication builds trust and respect which can help smooth the progress of a current project and any future projects. And in the event that there is bad news to share, it will be better received by stakeholders who feel valued by the company and who are have been kept informed.
When stakeholder engagement has gone really well, celebrate by entering an award. Receive third-party recognition for your efforts and use the award ceremony to celebrate successful projects with the team!