It is clear from our conversations with Council members that the profile, influence and importance of stakeholder groups are continually shifting and evolving. The vast majority of Council members name several stakeholder groups that have become increasingly important in recent years. Many point to the emergence and growth of some new influential audiences, driven by social media giving a louder voice to a wider group of audiences, including the public;
“It gets back to the whole social media piece. Everyone has a megaphone and can be heard. We have to pay closer attention and be more nimble to respond and engage.”
While recognising the growth in new influential stakeholders, many Council members also stress that this has not diminished the role and importance of traditional stakeholders (e.g. in government or media). Interviews highlight that it’s not a case of new stakeholders pushing aside the old players, but instead that there is now a larger range of influential stakeholders for corporate communicators to engage and manage.
WHICH STAKEHOLDERS ARE BECOMING MORE / LESS INFLUENTIAL?
A range of different audiences are recognised by Council members as becoming more influential, but leading the way are customers and employees, closely followed by government/politicians and the general public. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), journalists and investors are also commonly mentioned.
While many explained the increased importance of customers as being the audience which ultimately buy their products and services (“We’re not an NGO, we’re not the government, we’re a company that makes products. We’re here to serve the customers.”), others point to the fact that customers are becoming more aware and vocal on socio-political issues;
“Customers, maybe over the last 10 years, have become more important than ever, only because they are such an important voice in a lot of the debates on health or the environment or packaging or whatever it might be.”
Similarly, the wider public’s influence is growing as they become more organised and sophisticated in getting their voices and views heard on socio-political issues;
“The informed public, the political and socially interested ones have not really played a part in the past but have now become more important.”
Several corporate communicators observed the growth of “individual activists”, highlighting the influence that one voice can now have;
“One of the areas we have seen massively grow is individual activism and how that can actually be really quite challenging…as a company, we are not set up to meet with all these individuals because otherwise that is all we will do. And it has really required us to look at what information can we produce that will be easy to send to these individuals and engage with them but not necessarily require us to have meeting after meeting after meeting.”
While engaging with an individual is one solution, many also turn to NGOs as a partner to help influence the views of activists and “shape the external landscape”. NGOs are also seen to be increasingly important to understand the views of consumers while also providing, as one member stated, “a useful sounding board for us as we are developing plans”. Just like the wider public and individual activists, NGOs are becoming increasingly organised and influential on socio-political issues.
Closely related to the growth of individual activism and engagement, is the extent to which employees are now taken “much more seriously as a sophisticated stakeholder audience”.
“Employees have risen to the top as far as important audiences. They were an afterthought, even a couple of years ago. Understanding that employees are at the heart of an organization – that they’re the ones who drive the culture and the results – is definitely a trend.”
Employees are increasingly being thought of as credible communicators which companies need to “help empower as potential ambassadors for the business”. There is also a recognition that taking good care of the workforce can lead to a better-run company and being able to recruit the best possible talent.
Our research shows that employees are seen to be a trusted source of information. Organisations should therefore leverage the potential influence that their employees hold as credible communicators.
However, to do so, employees need to be both empowered and enabled. Similarly, employees need to receive enough knowledge about their organisation’s values and aspirations, so they feel confident enough to discuss these with others. Messaging should be aligned across the business and succinct in layman’s terms, so that it can be easily digestible and easily relayed by employees. Inviting external stakeholders to facilities or events where they can engage with employees is also viewed as an effective way to give voice to this increasingly important group.
GOVERNMENT / POLITICIANS
Despite being considered a traditional stakeholder audience, many corporate communicators report that politicians are increasingly important to them. As with the public and NGOs, some politicians are also increasingly vocal and impactful through their use of social media platforms, and occasionally the views shared on such platforms can be disruptive, damaging and misleading;
“Government has gotten more vocal. They were always important, but now they’re very reactionary, so you have to be able to anticipate what they will be reactionary about.”
“Customers [are] more informed and empowered, but sometimes they do not have enough information to analyze properly. Politicians are taking advantage of some distorted information in an opportunistic and populist way.”
Politicians’ ability to determine license to operate is also cited as a key consideration, with corporate communicators working hard to ensure their company’s views are heard in policy and regulatory discussions;
“We actually don’t want to be the one that the politicians have in their sights, but we do want to make sure that we’re at the table contributing to the policy discussion.”
Council members note that the importance of politicians ebbs and flows depending on elections and other key political events. During a normal election cycle, the work of corporate communicators is strategic and deliberate, whereas when things are more unpredictable at election time “there is almost no point… because there is going to be such a huge turnover…when we get through the election there is a huge task to be done in terms of mapping your stakeholders and working out where the balance of power lies and where we need to focus.” With increased political uncertainty around the globe, communicators are having to adapt and evolve their approach for engagement with this important group.
In contrast to views about politicians, there is much less consensus when it comes to the media. Council members are split on the importance of this group, being just as likely to say it’s on the rise as to say it is diminishing. Some feel that the media continues to be a key channel of information that can be used to communicate a company’s message;
“I wouldn’t underestimate the relationship with traditional media either, you do so at your peril. We try to invest in the right amount of time with various traditional media audiences…they are important allies for us.”
However, others feel that while traditional media continues to be important, its influence is less than in the past, largely due to the growth of social media and online sources of information;
“They are still important, but I do think they are less influential than they used to be, definitely they take up less of my time than they would have done 5-10 years ago. There are just a lot of sources now online where people use and reuse content and they just don’t necessarily want to pay for it.”
To a large extent, the perceived importance of the media will vary from across sector, issue and outlet. For communicators in today’s environment, the key is knowing which media voices have influence on the issues that matter to your organisation and targeting engagement efforts accordingly.
Considering the growing voice of the public, we asked Council members how they go about engaging with this audience. Members highlight the need for a targeted approach, where budgets allow:
“I think it’s fundamental to have a specific approach for each audience. Specific to different segments…To move away from something generic and closer to particularities.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that different parts of the general public will receive different messages; in fact, often the messaging across audiences will be aligned, but the formats and channels of delivering the messaging will vary by audience;
“We tailor messaging to each audience; however, we have core messaging that our messages all ladder from to create unique messages.”
While it is common practice for brand and marketing functions to tailor communications towards their core target customer audience, corporate communicators are also increasingly taking a targeted approach in their communications with the public. While the concept of the engaged citizen and early adopters is not a new one, it is especially relevant as a means of concentrating messaging towards a group of people who are most likely to absorb the messaging, react to the messaging, and influence the views of others. Understanding the views of these engaged publics can also act as an early indicator of future trends, as they are more likely to be ahead of the curve in terms of their views, awareness of issues, and behaviour;
“These are the engaged, interested, active people within their local communities and the broader industry circles. If we can reach them, and if they can understand what we’re doing, then that helps create grounds for them.”
However, as one Council member points out, it is important to identify and understand the characteristics of the most engaged segment of the public, and to do so regularly as their profile can change over time;
“The difficulty is in identifying them because they are not the same as they were 20 years ago, 10 years ago, now. So being able to identify the right slice of humanity that can give information in advance, and then gain time for companies. It’s a difficult task.”
Closely aligned with the increased need to treat the engaged public as a core stakeholder group, is the growing importance of social media influencers;
“Very important, an extremely important audience because they really have the power to influence both consumption and behaviour. And they influence both from the point of view of selling our products and advancing our causes. Digital influencers are extremely important. I think the digital influencer will gain even more relevance.”
When engaging with social media influencers, Council members talk about how they first go about identifying and selecting a small pool of highly relevant and influential individuals;
“It is about the quality of audience really, are we talking to the right people.”
The conversation shouldn’t be one-way. While some focus on engaging with influencers as a catalyst or ambassador to get messaging across, it is also worth listening to what influencers and their followers have to say. As a member states, this can lead to exceptional levels of insight;
“I have been working with 10 or 15 micro influencers who might have less than 1,000 followers and actually their network can be exceptionally interesting as well because you get some very rich in-depth engagement with some very interesting insights.”
However, not all corporate communicators engage with social media influencers. Some feel that the financial costs are too great or that social media influencers are “less impactful now”. One Council member also warns of the danger caused by interacting with such influencers, pointing to the risks of handing over control of your reputation to social media ambassadors, and emphasising the need for careful monitoring when going down this route;
“Every time you interact with someone, you create a contract with someone, you are transferring the responsibility to that person. In other words, I would need to closely monitor the integrity, the behaviour of my ambassadors.”
Similarly, it is important to underline the fact that Council members are far less likely to name social media influencers as an increasingly important stakeholder group than they are to name other audiences such as employees, politicians, the wider public and NGOs. Indeed, while social media has undoubtedly been a driver of change, Ipsos Corporate Reputation’s experience of working with stakeholder audiences highlights that direct engagement remains the most effective way to ensure a voice on your key issues.
The increased breadth and influence of the stakeholder audiences with which communicators must now engage highlights the fact that building and protecting corporate reputation is a complex challenge. Communicators need to be adept at determining the difference between noise and influence, with resources directed accordingly to ensure effective relationships are built with the stakeholder groups that matter most. In mapping out their stakeholder audiences, the relative importance of each group should be determined by its level of influence over the issues affecting an organisations’ reputation, rather than the channel through which the influence is created. This is reflected in the experiences of Council members where traditional stakeholders are given as much consideration as emerging influencers. As technological change continues to give voice to new audiences, the ability to map, understand and prioritise stakeholder audiences will become increasingly important in determining corporate communications success.