Stakeholder engagement is a common business practice that serves a variety of purposes. It can be mandated by government, be part of corporate social responsibility policies, or a strategic development activity. The communication channels that are opened between a company and stakeholders can ideally result in the strengthening of relationships between parties, and provide essential insights into current or future challenges and trends.
Compelling stakeholder engagement follows a strategy that targets the right groups, involves participants in a meaningful way, and makes use of the information collected to inform next steps.
Effective stakeholder engagement can also result in participants changing their preconceived perspectives about the project, development or issue under discussion. This occurs when participants feel engaged, valued and invested in the process, and when they receive sufficient clear information about the project to make the most informed decision about it.
One of the most important aspects of engagement is for the proponent to not to have predetermined outcomes for the process. If stakeholders feel any area is not up for discussion or their voices will not be heard, they will be mistrustful of the process.
Targeting the right groups involves including those who will be or will deem themselves to be affected by the project or proposal, those who can add new information to the discussion, those who it would not be wise to exclude, and those the proponent is mandated to consult.
Participants should be engaged in ways that are suited to them and make it easy for them to understand and communicate. This may involve engaging participants online so they may contribute when it’s convenient for them, and/or giving stakeholders the ability to comment anonymously. Offering a range of approaches such as focus groups, surveys, forums, questions and answer opportunities is also practical.
Stakeholders who are not properly informed about a project may not be in favour of it due to the lack of comprehensive background information. For that reason, proponents must engage in educating stakeholders during the consultation process. Part of meaningful engagement also means taking the information gathered during the consultation process into account and making necessary changes to the application as a result. Changes or alterations should be communicated to stakeholders to reflect this commitment.
Some of the additional positive outcomes for an engaging stakeholder engagement process that can shift stakeholders’ perspectives include:
- Improved relationships between proponent and stakeholders
- Changed perceptions of the proposal and the proponent company as a result of information sharing
- Improved communication channels
- Generation of new ideas to inform the project or proposal
- Identification and diffusion of potential conflict areas before they arise
- Support and goodwill for the proposal
Key takeaway: Have the intention to educate and inform stakeholders, to develop an open communication channel, as well as being prepared to adapt and communicate back based on the input that is gathered. This is the practical approach towards informing and in some cases even changing minds during the consultation process.
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