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Speaking AND Listening: The Key to Effective Stakeholder Communications

Image credit: Symantec

Fostering a two-way, inclusive dialogue with stakeholders is key to the success of corporate sustainability programs. But developing a communications strategy that delivers the transparency stakeholders demand, in an engaging, enriching way, is challenging.

Recently, I spoke with Lora PhillipsSymantec Corporation’s Senior Manager of Global Corporate Responsibility, about the various ways the company is communicating to its stakeholders through social media tools such as Chatter, their corporate sustainability blog, the company’s intranet, and more.

Lora’s key piece of advice: Don’t just talk to your audience — listen. Do it often, do it consistently and do it thoughtfully. Below she explains how.    

  1. What are the most effective communication channels to engage stakeholders in CR?

    I think that communications are most effective at engaging stakeholders when those stakeholders feel there is an opportunity for their voice to be heard, or for them to influence the outcome in some way. So it’s not just about Symantec telling people what we’re doing, but it’s about listening to diverse opinions and giving our stakeholders — especially employees — a sense of ownership in outcomes.

    Because of this, I think that social channels are definitely emerging as stakeholders’ communications channels of choice. This is also consistent with the way in which the world is communicating in general. The world has become a much more open and transparent place. If we, as a company, expect to be able to tell our story, we have to do so in a way that resonates with our various audiences and gives them an opportunity to participate in a conversation, not just treat them as receptacles for our corporate pitch. We’re experimenting with a broad range of social vehicles — blogging (both internal and external), traditional social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Chatter (internally), as well as actively soliciting feedback via surveys and focus groups.

  2. How do these differ across stakeholder groups (e.g. from employees to non-profits to shareholders)?

    I think that while the message may often be the same, or at least similar, across stakeholder groups, the language used is important. For instance, shareholders and financial analysts are already comfortable with the concepts of materiality and risk/opportunity assessments, so framing your story within those familiar concepts helps that audience to easily digest your message. Our customers and partners are concerned with the strength of our culture of honesty, business ethics, and quality. They want to know that we are a trustworthy business partner so the CR messages we deliver to them would build off of these expectations. Employees are concerned about what they can expect from their employer  how will they be treated, will the company invest in their growth, are they a part of something larger that’s contributing to the betterment of society. They’re also greatly interested in celebrating their fellow employees, so we find that human interest stories about volunteerism and personal commitment resonate strongly internally.

    Nonprofits at the global level typically engage with us focused on one or two particular issues. They’re interested in the progress we’ve made against their issue of concern, and what our future plans are to continue on a path of improvement. Metrics-driven results are important to communicate here, and  like all stakeholder groups  our “listening” skills are just as important here as our “talking” skills. We have an opportunity to really learn from these experts about best practices and how we can use our assets to help drive industry-wide progress against specific issue areas. And the local nonprofits in the communities where we have a business presence want to know how we can work with them to make their neighborhoods healthier, more sustainable, and better off because of our presence.

  3. So what recommendations would you have for companies trying to keep a consistent message while speaking to different audiences across varying communications channels?

    My main recommendation would be to tailor your story to the characteristics of the channel you’re using. Learn to repurpose material. Intranet sites are great for news-type stories, but the same message can be followed up with a blog showcasing a personal perspective, for example. Identify the key messages first, then play around with the voice and delivery.

  4. In your opinion, how has social media changed ‘the game’ for companies engaging stakeholders in CR?

    Corporations used to be almost completely in control of the conversation as it relates to CR. They could choose what to report out, and any challenges or questions about their priorities or performance were fairly quiet (except in cases of well-organized, large-scale boycott efforts or protests). Social media changed the landscape in several ways:

    1. Types of stakeholders: Smaller, more grassroots organizations are now able to access large corporations in the same ways that large organizations can. This opens up opportunities for new voices, new issues.
    2. Time scale for reply: Stakeholders are looking for a true conversation, and they expect timely responses to their questions and concerns.
    3. Grassroots movements: We’ve seen social media give power to issues/complaints that start very small and mushroom into movements. For example, the Kony 2012 short film went viral in a way we had never seen before. It is thought that nearly half of all US young adults had seen the film within a matter of days, and there were over five million Twitter posts about the movie in the week following its release.

    Social media essentially leveled the playing field. It provided access and opportunity for raising issues, asking questions, making complaints, or giving kudos. Communicating in this way requires companies to forgo some level of control over the messaging. Companies are now true “participants” in a conversation, rather than the controllers of the total messaging package.

  5. In your opinion, what are the Do’s and Don’ts for anyone running an internal communications strategy around CR?

    DO:

    • Be transparent. Celebrate successes, but also acknowledge failures and areas for improvement.
    • Set the context. Resist the temptation to be a cheerleader for every award, ranking, etc. Provide an honest assessment — are scores going up or down? Are we improving, or declining? What needs to change?
    • Be human. Employees love to read about what their fellow employees are doing. Step outside metrics and put a face on your stories.
    • Tie back to the business strategy. Why is it important for the company to engage on these issues? Why do we care? What is the business value inherent in the CR strategy?
    • Provide a call to action. How can employees play a role in advancing the company’s corporate responsibility agenda?

    DON’T:

    • Leave people hanging. If you survey employees, report the results. If you include a “stay tuned for more information” message, follow up with more information.
    • Relay on a single vehicle. Pull together a mix of communications tools — the intranet might be a great place for a “newsy” type angle, while a blog can provide a personal perspective on the same story, and a Chatter conversation can extend reporting into brainstorming.
    • Forget to acknowledge your internal partners. If a project was a cross-functional one, acknowledge the contributions of people outside your department.

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