Stakeholder Engagement: Six Tips for Effective Dialogue

By Deborah Fleischer
Stakeholder engagement is a process of reaching out to a range of constituents who are interested in, or impacted by, your business, including employees, investors, suppliers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), consumers, governmental agencies and thought-leaders.
It means opening up your company to feedback, and potentially criticism, from a diverse range of perspectives. So, why would you want to take this risk?
Business case for stakeholder engagement
Before I launch into the key tips for engaging stakeholders, I want to touch on why stakeholder engagement is a solid business practice.
Alex McIntosh, Director of Corporate Citizenship at Nestle Waters, believes that lacking a stakeholder engagement strategy “…is like launching a new product without doing any market research….You are taking a big risk without doing it. Stakeholder engagement is an important, essential element in good citizenship and good business strategy. You need to know what issues are most important to the people that are most relevant to your business.”

Hewlett Packard (HP) is involved in dialogues with NGOs all over the world. Bonnie Nixon, Director of Environmental Sustainability at HP explains, “allowing stakeholders to honestly critique us pushes us to improve our programs and helps us develop our thought leadership platforms.”
To sum it up, here are the key business benefits to a stakeholder engagement program:
You can get feedback on where you are perceived on key issues, identify areas for improvement and understand what risks may be coming; NGOs can help raise awareness of issues outside your four walls, identify your weaknesses and bring issues to life for the CEO. Issues coming from a stakeholder community often bring credibility to an issue; Engagement can provide valuable input as you develop goals and metrics; and Stakeholders can help you push the envelope and stretch for higher performance.
Six tips for more effective outreach
Each of the following six tips is discussed in more detail below:
* Be strategic about whom to talk to
* Connect to the larger world
* Focus on solutions
* Build an internal culture
* Don’t make commitments you cannot keep
* Look both upstream and downstream
Be strategic: Think strategically about whom to invite to the table and stretch as much as possible into your discomfort zone. The ideal stakeholders to reach out to are those who have both power and influence and a willingness to engage.
Be open to speaking with both ends of the spectrum, from collaborative organizations to more extreme activists. The groups you don’t want at the table might have important insights or be a catalyst for a new solution to emerge.
HP doesn’t shut the door to any NGO – they are open to critiques from activist organizations such as Green Peace and have more strategic partnerships with other organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who advises them on such issues as carbon reduction goals and metrics.
Connect to the larger world: NGOs, sometimes even the ones you don’t see eye to eye with, can be great allies when there is a large, social issue that a company can’t fix alone, such as climate change, recycling or water issues.
Focus on solutions: True dialogue can generate increased trust, new solutions and creative partnerships. A key to a successful stakeholder engagement is designing the process to lead to action and solutions. Challenge stakeholders to be part of the solution.
Build an internal culture: McIntosh recommends “educating your internal team on the spectrum of NGOs and the potential impact they can have on the business.” Develop strong relationships with other key departments, such as procurement, marketing, supply chain and governmental affairs – build expectations internally on how stakeholder engagement can help the company.
Don’t make commitments you can’t keep: OK. This one might seem obvious, but for large companies, making changes within a supply chain can take time and planning. While some stakeholders might want you to be more aggressive on a particular issue, be sure to look at the bigger picture, and across your supply chain, before making commitments.
Look upstream and downstream: Include your supply chain, customers, investors and employees in your outreach. What issues do they care about? What is important to them? Answers to these questions can help inform your strategy and programs.
Deborah Fleischer is the founder and president of Green Impact, providing strategic environmental consulting services to mid-sized companies and NGOs who want to launch a new green initiative or cross-sector collaboration, but lack the in-house capacity to get it up and running. She brings expertise in sustainability strategy, program development, stakeholder engagement and written communications.

Deborah Fleischer is founder and president of Green Impact, a strategic sustainability consulting practice that helps companies walk the green talk. She helps companies design and launch new green strategies and programs, as well as communicate about successes. She is a GRI-certified sustainability reporter and LEED AP with a Master in Environmental Studies from Yale University and over 20-years of direct experience working on sustainability-related challenges in both the public and private sectors. She brings deep expertise in sustainability strategy, stakeholder engagement, program development and written communications. Deborah has helped to design and implement numerous successful cross-sector partnerships and new green initiatives, including the California Environmental Dialogue, Curb Your Carbon and the Institute at the Golden Gate. She has helped create lasting alliances among such organizations as Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy with companies such as Disney, Arco, Bank of America and Passport Resorts. You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact or contact her directly at

6 responses

  1. Great tips. Looking for ways to involve not only consumers, but those who will not consume is critical. Those that will not consume is the market segment you want to target to understand why they are not interested in your product or service. By understanding you can realize either the product needs to be modified to meet changing demands, or the particular consumer is not the right consumer for your product. It will help focus you business efforts to meet the needs of consumers.
    Take Wal-mart. All they milk sold on the Wal-mart Brand, Great Value, is rBST Free (a genetic modifier). Consumers told Wal-mart they did not want genetically modified milk and they listed. The change had no effect on consumers who don’t have an opinion. All businesses would do well to actively listen and involve consumers, suppliers, etc in business activities.

  2. I really enjoyed your blog about what is needed to begin
    effective dialogue between a corporation to its stakeholders. You addressed the
    importance of even stretching outside of your immediate stakeholders to those
    that hold different values and contrasting viewpoints to grow and become more involved
    in the world as a whole.  It’s important
    to keep moving outside of the corporations comfort zone not only to seek growth
    in new markets but to actively engage stakeholders to find out what is really
    important to them and involve them to a much larger extent with the business of
    the corporation that is a part of their lives. One of your quotes from a leader
    at a company as large as HP has really embraced this philosophy. Bonnie Dixon,
    Director of Environmental Sustainability at HP explains, “Allowing stakeholders
    to honestly critique us pushes us to improve our programs and helps us develop
    our thought leadership platform.”   We
    are studying the benefits of dialogic approaches to communication in a grad
    class that I have this semester.  This
    same type of philosophy is endorsed by one of the authors we are studying:”
    Dialogic communication, then, would be characterized by a relationship in which
    both parties have genuine concern for the other, rather than merely seeking to
    fulfill their own needs… practitioners would begin from the assumption that
    target publics have interpretations of the world that are as varied and valid
    as the client’s interpretations. They would assume that the real goal is not
    reducing publics to the service of the client through instrumental mastery but
    joining with the publics in the process of negotiating new mutual
    understanding.”(Botan, C., Ethics in Strategic Campaigns: The Case for a new
    Approach to Public Relations, 1997).

    Secondly, your article points out in 6 very concise points
    on how to engage those stakeholders. Although they seem fundamental and not
    hard to grasp it has taken a long time for large corporations to put them into
    wide use and embrace this whole culture of open dialogue and communication. And
    then of course there will be those that will never reach this sort of
    enlightened position.  Thank you again
    for your blog!

    Greg Stockton, Drury University  grad student.



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