The semantics of stakeholder communications

A consortium of Maserati-wielding property developers is funding the construction of a new multi-storey shopping complex in a working-class suburb of central Johannesburg. Large retail chains are salivating at the prospect of opening their swanky boutiques and artisanal coffee shops while property-prices are set to soar as the area becomes desirable to investors. The allure of mass-produced chunks of moola is insatiable.

Exciting, right? – not for everyone.

Locals aren’t as enthused by the new development. Residents, occupying low-cost housing blocks, face the threat of eviction to make way for the new shopping gargantuan. Local shop owners are startled at the risk of having to close their operations amid inflating rental prices. Unions are irked at the possibility of their members experiencing jobs losses from the pending gentrification.

In true South African spirit, the three groups embark on frenzied protest action. Facing the threat of violence, construction of the new development is halted, the consortium of property developers is left red-faced and money, well, is invariably lost.

Tis the power of mass mobilisation.

But where, exactly, did our ambitious property moguls go wrong? Poor stakeholder communication would be a useful diagnosis.

More than just a fluffy corporate buzzword, stakeholder communication is becoming an increasingly important strategic tool for organisations the world over. 

Defined as the process of integrating feedback acquired from stakeholders into an organisation’s operations – stakeholder communication is about inclusion.

“Wait, Stakeholders?” I’m glad you asked.

Stakeholders are parties or individuals that are affected directly, or indirectly, by an organisation’s operations. Remember the disgruntled residents, shop owners and unions? They were affected by the consortium’s hostile spatial takeover – therefore, were stakeholders.

Effective stakeholder communication is about learning what your stakeholders care about most, building mutually-beneficial relationships and creating trust.

When you communicate, however, is also important.

In the words of many a university-dwelling philosopher, stakeholder communication can’t be done a posteriori (after the fact). Keeping stakeholders on-side is about proactive consultation. Unearthing their needs and interests, before unwittingly trampling over them, can pre-empt any actions (i.e. mass mobilisation) that may affect the creation of value.

If the consortium consulted with residents and learned of their need for adequate and affordable housing, they may have opted to erect their heralded multi-storey shopping complex elsewhere.

The logic is simple, knocking on the door before problems arise is easier than after they do.

Creating systemic and lasting ways to communicate with stakeholders is not only helpful for crisis-aversion, but can also be useful strategically. On-going communication can help in gauging stakeholder expectations and increasing buy-in to strategic decisions (i.e. introducing a new product line, starting an online peanut emporium, launching a space programme).

We’re only scratching the surface with the value-add to stakeholder communication.

Gone are the days where organisations operated in echo chambers divorced from the outside world. Now, extending the proverbial olive branch to those affected can no longer just be an act of courtesy, but a rite of passage. Because as the Stanford Research Institute once lamented, stakeholders are those groups without whose support an organisation would cease to exist.