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Selecting stakeholder groups for effective communication in the 21st-Century

March 20, 2013

 

The following interview of Toni Muzi Falconi (by Rachel Miller) appeared on PR Conversations in February 2013. It is reprinted on the Global Alliance site with permission.

 

Recently Toni Muzi Falconi approached PR Conversations about some of his current examinations regarding alternative approaches to communicating with stakeholders. It was determined the most effective method to understand and communicate his research would be an interview format and conversation, conceived by internal communication specialist (and recent guest poster), Rachel Miller.

 

 

Rachel Miller (RM): Toni, I’m interested to learn more about what you are currently working on.

 

Toni Muzi Falconi (TMF): Rachel, I am evaluating possible alternative approaches for employee relations professionals to better understand and communicate more effectively with their primary stakeholders.

In this quest I am also hoping to identify a “generic” professional worldview that is adoptable/adaptable to an effective governance of relationships with other stakeholders, such as suppliers, investors, distributors, media, public policy decision makers, et al.

 

 

RM: This sounds quite interesting; I’m intrigued about what approaches you are exploring?

 

TMF: I’m examining how to separate stakeholders into as many groups as possible, using sense-making indicators (to find out more, I point to Karl Weick as a real asset).

The idea is to be able to ensure that content may be adapted to satisfy and attract expectations of (and dialogue from) specific groups.

The other areas I’ve been thinking about is how we could improve results? This means identifying and examining an ever-growing list of flexible tools and channels. And these must be selectively applied on the basis of different variables—which inevitably will change in time.

 

 

RM: What separations/groups would you expect to see?

 

TMF: Traditional separations, such as blue-collar and white-collar employees, managers, etc., are of course necessary.

But these separations don’t tend to be particularly useful if you are attempting to involve them on general culture-related issues, such as their motivation, participation and satisfaction in the workplace.

 

 

RM: Do you have a way to segment those individual groups?

 

TMF: Adopting a consolidated market segmentation approach and adapting it to that public is useful. However, too many adaptations are necessary not to justify at least looking for a different approach.

 

 

RM: What is your recommendation for a different approach?

 

TMF: The growing body of knowledge concerning the digital influencing issue is helpful. This is also because it confirms, for the most part, that long-existing public relations approaches to stakeholder identification can shed much light on internal, as well as external, publics.

Specific studies (and many applications) related to concepts such as “niches,” “tribes” or “clusters” are also there to help.

 

 

RM: So what is at the heart of your current and original research on stakeholder communication?

 

TMF: This has been my thought process—if you think about employees, they own the following profiles:
 

  • personal
  • professional
  • territorial (it includes the history, culture, values and norms that relate to living in a specific territory rather than another)

 

In parallel, organizations also own at least two profiles:
 

  • corporate
  • sector
     

Once one recognizes ownership of several profiles, the natural thought progression is that likely it’s a lost cause to develop a “generic” approach to communication; instead, it’s more useful to spend more time focusing on “specific” (situational) ones.

 

 

RM: Does this mean because employees have more than one profile, they could therefore be in multiple segments?

 

TMF: Yes, in an abstract and theoretical operating “space,” a given employee populace of a given organization could be “divided” into at least the five “profiles” as listed above.

Each of which, obviously, intersects with each other , too. Then, according to the specific objective that the employee relations professional wishes to achieve, the related contents and available tools and channels may be differently mixed and deployed in each situation.

 

 

RM: That’s an interesting idea, so segmenting your communication based on which profile they come under?

 

TMF: Yes. This is not—as some might think—an “easy way out,” as it would imply the use of professional skills and competencies that are not normally in the communication practitioner’s domain. Areas (clusters) that would need to be mapped and listened to include:
 

  • dominant organizational culture (with its subcultures and anti-cultures); and
  • sectorial or industry cultures

 

And of course the:
 

  • legal
  • political
  • economic
  • socio-cultural
  • active citizenship; and
  • media characteristics
     

of a given territory.

 

It would also mean the mapping and understanding of personal and professional profiles and creating content related to the specific objective one is trying to achieve.

That would then need to be adapted to each one of those clusters, plus selecting the more appropriate tools and channels to do this—it’s one hell of a task!

Unless, of course, this “generic situational approach” (an oxymoron?) becomes the basic method adopted for each program.

 

 

RM: How do you see this working in practice for employee relations professionals?

 

TMF: I am not at all sure of where I am going with this as it remains in the exploratory stage. That’s why I would really welcome comments, suggestions, advice from you, Rachel, as well as from other readers of PR Conversations.

Having said this, I imagine that—faced with one clear and specific change management project (to take a common example)—the employee communicator is well versed with the organization’s sector and corporate cultures and focuses on these mission and values. That is, inasmuch as they impact on the specific objective being pursued.

The communicator then identifies the employee populace involved in the specific objective (the universe, in this case) and listens to their objective-related opinions and expectations, integrating these findings into the personal, professional and territorial profiles.

This knowledge, in turn, creates an overall communicative infrastructure that allows a flexible adaptation of multiple contents releasable through an ever-growing list of tools and channels selected on the basis of priority indicators. For example, interactivity, flexibility, time impact, credibility, reach and so on.

 

 

RM: Thank you for the invitation for my input, Toni.

It’s certainly true that communicators are well versed in segmenting communication in order to achieve organizational objectives.

My take on your suggested approach is that there would be many benefits to sub-dividing employees and tailoring communication with them, based on the variables you’ve previously mentioned.

However, my concern would be how to accurately categorize employees. And maybe even more importantly, “keep track” of any changes in sector, geography, etc.

If it added a huge amount of consideration and analytical challenges for communication professionals, I wonder how many would have the inclination or time? Inclination, I think, would certainly be there as any good communication practitioner worth her or his salt wants the very best for employees when it comes to creating effective conversations and business communication, but perhaps resource-wise (time or money) less so.

It’s certainly food for thought.

And as someone who has studied Weick’s sense-making ideas, it appeals to me. Weick’s notion of sense-making—literally making sense of what we see and hear—has a role to play here. For example, frame of reference communications. In this example, employees are presented with information in a manner that they recognize (framework) that makes sense based on their understanding (e.g., cues), and leads to effective communication (e.g., a connection).

Weick’s idea is that once people begin to act they generate outcomes in some context, and this helps them discover what is occurring, what needs to be explained and what should be done next. In short, a good story. Sense-making is about plausibility, coherence and reasonableness. It’s well known that employees will only “take things in” if they have a cue/receptor.

Taking this thinking a step further, I think the profiles you’ve mentioned have a role to play here and I can see this segmentation working.

 

TMF: Clearly my suggested approach implies for the employee communicator to invest more thought and time in preparing a program before implementing it. It is natural that a professional be inclined to apply methods that have always been used rather than opt for a different path.

However, rationality would suggest that a more “reflective” approach is needed today—because employee communication has become so relevant.

Besides, the recent (2010) collective global effort by the Global Alliance to define the need for an essential alignment of internal and external communication of an organization (I am referring to the Stockholm Accords) also indicates:

 

For the communicative organization, internal communication is vital in the development and sustenance of the organization, fostering trust, commitment, purpose and shared goals among all internal stakeholders including all employee tiers, contractors, consultants, suppliers, volunteers and others required to fulfill the organization’s purpose.

And this certainly mandates a more sophisticated and aware approach.

 

 

RM: But how do you know when the groups are satisfied? What measurement would need to be put in place?

 

TMF: The ultimate objective, in my view, is not to satisfy the (however) identified groups, but to achieve the organization’s objectives.

From this premise, the employee communicator assumes that reducing frustrations and resistance in the workforce and stimulating ideas, motivation and participation, improves the chances of achieving the specified objective. The evaluation methodology I suggest is that, once the universe and the specific groups are identified (see former question), the quality of existing relationships and contents be pre-tested, with samples from each group. The quality testing would be on the basis of:
 

  • trust
  • satisfaction
  • commitment
  • power balance or control mutuality
     

for the relationship.
 

As well as:
 

  • credibility of source
  • credibility of content; and
  • familiarity of content
     

for the communication quality.

 

Such a pre-test allows one to set and share with top management specific relationship and communication objectives to be achieved in a given timeframe with given resources.

A post-test, following the implementation of the program, will give you a good idea of where you went wrong in the process.

Also, this method allows the communicator to negotiate in advance of the actual implementation; for example, a well-deserved bonus if and when the results exceed the negotiated objectives.

I have been adopting this (constantly updated and flexible) methodology for many PR projects over the last 20 years and have always been gratified.

 

 

RM: Toni, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

I quite like the idea of a pre- and post-test measurement. From reading back on our conversation about your new area of study, what stands out to me is that people working within employee communication need to be flexible, and adapt and evolve the way they work in order to meet the ever-changing needs of both their employees and employers’ objectives. I wonder what other readers think?

 

For some interesting comments and discussion that resulted, visit the original PR Conversations post.