Use stewardship techniques to safeguard relationships with long-term stakeholders

Since many communication activities are short-term, we can too-easily move on and forget some of our most important stakeholders when an issue or crisis is resolved. Yet some of those stakeholders will continue to be important to us. Continuing good relationship management is required. You can use stewardship techniques to safeguard long-term stakeholder relationships.

Ongoing stakeholders are vital to you whether you are in a corporate communication role or a consulting role.

However, since many communication projects and programs are relatively short-term in nature, it is all too easy to move on and forget some of your most important stakeholders when an issue is resolved. It is easy to forget, or at least to put on the backburner, consideration of those stakeholders. Yet some of those stakeholders will continue to be important to you.

Good relationships can’t be turned on and off like a tap. You need to nurture them or they will wither. If you don’t nurture them, they will invariably be more difficult to resurrect when needed later. Good relationship management is required.

For instance, your organization may need to maintain a good relationship over a number of years with a legislator, government department, regulatory body, consumer association, supplier or shareholder group. They may influence decision makers or make their own decisions that could have a profound impact on your organization at a later time.

Such stakeholders may even be NGOs or pressure groups who are critical of your organization. Maintaining a dialogue brings about ties, even if they are uneasy, with the other party. It is harder for them to publicly criticize you when you have gone to the effort of maintaining a direct dialogue with them, which is in effect a continuing relationship with them. These ties can be valuable later when other issues involving them may emerge.

Your situation isn’t helped by the fact that most communication activities are relatively short term, contained within an annual communication plan as part of the annual strategic planning process. Once a year’s communication activities have been completed, the slate often starts clean again for next year’s activities – and last year’s stakeholders may tend to disappear from your view.

So what can you do to preserve a current and productive working relationship with your key stakeholders, some of whom are not immediately active at present?

Use stewardship to safeguard long-term stakeholder relationships

You can add a stewardship step to your communication framework. Stewardship is about a continuous relationship maintained and strengthened over a period longer than a project, program or year. It is often about a relationship that continues until a definite decision brings it to an end.

When you prepare your annual communication plan, review all the key individuals and groups of stakeholders who you believe are likely to remain important to you over the longer term regardless of their relevance in the forthcoming year.

Business strategist Graham Kenny suggests in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “Five questions to identify key stakeholders,” that you can ask 5 questions to identify key stakeholders. In addition to considering these questions for annual planning, the questions can be considered from the point of view of each stakeholder’s long-term relevance:

  1. Does the stakeholder have a fundamental impact on your organization’s performance? (Required response: yes.)
  2. Can you clearly identify what you want from the stakeholder? (Required response: yes.)
  3. Is the relationship dynamic – ie, do you want it to grow? (Required response: yes.)
  4. Can you exist without or easily replace the stakeholder? (Required response: no.)
  5. Has the stakeholder already been identified through another relationship? (Required response: no.)

In a 2021 HBR article, “Executives, let stakeholders drive your strategy,” Kenny further recommends:

The traditional process of making strategy is about managers finding a way to align a company’s capabilities with its opportunities and environment. That works well enough when environments are relatively stable, but not in highly unstable ones. In this situation, the solution is to treat strategy as a discovery process. Identify your stakeholders and find out what they expect of you. This engagement should be made by senior executives with strategic responsibilities; what they learn often surprises them.

Do they offer potential cooperation or threat?

In addition, certain stakeholders may be important to you because of their potential cooperation or threat:

  • They are influential business or community leaders
  • They work in the news media or have influential media contacts
  • They are social media influencers
  • They have control over assets, eg blocks of shares, or organizations
  • They have the capability to form coalitions
  • They have relative market power, eg customers
  • They have political power
  • They have regulatory power
  • They influence their members
  • They supply vital products or services
Form the list into groupings

Review the list and try to form them into groupings, which makes it more manageable and it is easier to communicate with them. You could even categorize them into their likely type of response over time:

  • Supportive
  • Non-supportive
  • Mixed
  • Marginal

Communication techniques to preserve stakeholder relationships

Some of the communication techniques you can use to develop relationships with stakeholders include:

  • Face-to-face meetings, briefings and telephone contact
  • Newsletters and background information targeted at specific stakeholder groups
  • Email information updates
  • Privileged access to web information, ie on extranets
  • Invitations to attend events such product launches; boardroom lunches; industry functions including VIP dinners and presentations, exhibitions, displays, sponsored events, charity activities
  • Corporate hospitality activities such as corporate boxes at sporting and arts events
  • Privilege offers to cardholders and members of groups
  • Web activities
  • Social media posts making positive mention of those stakeholders or causes they support, as long as you genuinely respect them for the positions they adopt
  • Include them to receive broadcast text messages providing updates of significant information.

If a stakeholder is important, time should be allocated to deal with them. If it is not feasible to deal with important stakeholders face to face, then the selected communication technique should be as personalized as possible.

If you pay attention to your ongoing stakeholders regardless of the day-to-day issues they – and you – may be involved with, you will go a long way towards successfully managing and minimizing the impact of future issues. Stewardship is a sound investment of time and effort, so make it a priority to use stewardship to safeguard stakeholder relationships.

Further reading

  • To build stronger relationships with your key stakeholders on specific issues, you can ask them carefully chosen questions to develop a better understanding of their priorities. Read about this in my article, “Asking key questions will improve outcomes from stakeholder relationships.”
  • My ebooks on developing successful communication plans offer you a generous number of helpful, practical insights. Tremendous value – just like having your own comms coach immediately at your side!

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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