Stakeholder engagement: 7 steps to success for sustainability professionals

During a 30-minute online masterclass hosted by edie earlier this week, Cranfield University's professor of environmental assessment Paul Leinster outlined some of the key ways in which sustainability and CSR professionals can drive engagement with stakeholders. Here, edie rounds up Leinster's key takeaways.

Brought to you in advance of the brand-new Sustainability Leadership Programme developed by Cranfield University for edie’s network of sustainability professionals, the 30-minute online masterclass is the latest in a series of free webinar-based sessions which provide a flavour of training Programme.

The 30-minute masterclass, which was broadcast live on Wednesday 28 November at 2.30pm, explored which approaches to sustainability communications are most effective for each kind of stakeholder – including board members, employees, policymakers and the general public.

During the session, Leinster gave hissome key advice on how sustainability, energy and CSR professionals can better engage, emphasise and translate sustainability across the diverse spread of stakeholders. Here are seven of his top tips. 

1) Ensure your communications are purpose-led

“Sometimes one of the things we do is say ‘we need a stakeholder engagement plan’ without considering the most fundamental thing – which, for me, is asking why you want to engage and what you’re seeking to achieve,” Leinster said.

“We need to be really clear upfront about defining what success looks like and what the purpose of this engagement is. You might want to inform people, influence them, build a case for action, compete with others or defend something – each of these intents will require a different approach.”

2) Maximise efficiency using pre-planning

During the broadcast, Leinster encouraged listeners to pre-plan who they were going to approach under each part of their engagement strategy, in order to avoid inefficient communications and “being given the run-around”.

“This is very basic stuff, but people often fail to do this,” he explained. “Often, people talk to the wrong people about the wrong things.”

3) Hold joint meetings to avoid fragmented communications

When working on a project which requires the engagement of multiple stakeholder groups or partner organisations, Leinster emphasised the importance of holding meetings with representatives from each group present.

“It’s important to get everyone who’s involved in making a decision or influencing a project in one room at the same time,” he said.

“Otherwise, you may have something legitimate to ask, but people will say ‘it’s not me [who should deal with this].

4) Understand why opponents are not on board with your ideas

“You need to understand why those who are disagreeing with you do so, which means understanding the national and local political contexts,” Leinster said, citing the difference between national policy and local opinions on fracking as an example. 

“We don’t ask often enough what the benefit is for the other party. In some situations, companies see profit and market advantage while all the public will see are risks and disruptions.”

5) Know that honesty is the best policy

In an age of low consumer confidence in corporations and charities, Leinster urged listeners to be transparent in order to build and retain stakeholder trust.

“Within a number of the issues that we deal with, there is significant scientific uncertainty, meaning we need to be much more upfront on what we are certain about but also what we are not,” he argued.

“Communication will break down if there is low confidence in the information that’s provided and a lack of transparency. We need to make sure that the information we provide is easily accessible for everyone.

6) Accept that people are bad listeners – and develop solutions to this challenge

Stressing the importance of clear communications, Leinster quoted economist Alan Greenspan, who famously said: “I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”

“What we say is not always as clear as it should be, and we are sometimes not very good listeners,” Leinster explained. “Often, people hear what they want to hear – so clarity of message and checking that people understand what you’re trying to say is key.

7) Cut out the jargon and be your own translator

During the Q&A segment of the webinar, a listener asked Leinster what types of language professionals should use to ensure that information was accessible to all stakeholders.

“It’s absolutely key to understand that what works for one group may be different for another,” he replied. “Think about the language of the recipient and what ‘jargon’ looks like to them – finance people are going to understand cost benefits and risk reduction, but for some customers, it might be a case of talking about hearts and minds.”

You can watch the full 30-minute masterclass on-demand, here.

Take part in the Sustainability Leadership Programme

edie’s series of 30-minute masterclasses offer a taster of the full Sustainability Leadership Programme that has been developed by the world-renowned Cranfield University for edie’s network of sustainability professionals. 

Beginning in early 2019, the Sustainability Leadership Programme will be made up of five modules which combine academic excellence with first-hand industry experience – one of which will be focused specifically on stakeholder engagement. The modules, which take the form of intensive one or two-day courses, will be made up of small, focused groups, allowing for an immersive and personal learning experience. 


edie staff

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