Stakeholders, networking, engagement, conversations, social media all go together in my mind, but it can be hard to explain to other people without falling into technobabble. Fortunately a new round of the Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants, organised by Nancy Schwartz helps by addressing the issue of how to engage audiences who are saturated by marketing messages and images. I think it has relevance for public and for-profit organisations too. First a bit of head-clearing.
Stakeholder engagement is one of the phases that has crept across fields from participative democracy to public relations, marketing and supermarket corporate responsibility. It means mapping who you serve, who supplies and supports you, who you influence, and who influences you ... then working out what sort of relationship you want with them, and how to achieve that. The jargon is a bit off-putting, but the basic idea of two-way communication, listening and responding, seems good to me whatever the area. Of course, there's lots more to it than that, and it only works effectively if you develop some trust with your stakeholders over time. As many an organisation has found, there's nothing worse than creating an expectation that ideas or complaints will be listened to, and then failing to deliver.
Now networking. These days a lot of nonprofit organisations like to say they are networks because it sounds open, welcoming, connecting. Unfortunately too often the reality is that the so-called network is no more than a mailing list, and communication is mainly one-way: telling, selling, with a bit of consulting. There's little recognition that in networks people talk to each other, and that's a good thing if they have good things to say about you ... not if they don't. So take networking seriously.
Social media can be more engaging, as Beth Kanter and I talked about in a recent workshop, because blogs and other tools are conversational and potentially collaborative. Beth's great presentation is here.
Too often I end up in meetings where terms like stakeholder engagement and social media are punted around, but it is pretty clear that the underlying ethos is still internal command and control, external tell and sell. The emphasis is on targetting, positioning, demonstrating ... with stakeholders seen as mainly passive recipients of messages. I tentatively say things like ... umm, isn't this about starting some conversations that help build new relationships, and develop more trust in doing things together? Isn't it about talking to each other? There's the occasional nod, but unless the boss follows up no-one is going to stick their necks out in those sort of meetings.
What I need, in order to make the point better, are examples of people who are recasting marketing, PR as engagement, with some of their good stories. That's what Nancy's Carnival offers this month. R. Craig Lefebvre sums it up: It's no longer about getting attention, it's about earning it.
From here in the UK Whitewater's Anna Crofton stresses the importance of integrity and authenticity and messages that are simple and compelling, and Steve Bridger recommends the power of storytelling, especially when it's visual. There's lots more in the Carnival which is, it seems to me, a small demonstration of the power of networking, social media and stakeholder engagement. The bloggers who contributed to Nancy's call for posts do so because they believe passionately in a different way of doing things, and also, I guess, because it helps rise their profiles in an authentic way that no amount of straight selling could do. I don't think there was a budget (beyond people's time of course). I'll remember to mention that in the next meeting ... throwing up the main issue: are you ready to make the effort to engage?