Pick Your Battles
In the era of online activism and fake news, professional stakeholder engagement is more important than ever. This is particularly true in the planning stages of large projects.
Why? Because stakeholder engagement helps key influencers understand and support your project and in Western Australia, some government bodies have made engagement mandatory before issuing licences and permits.
But engaging stakeholders well doesn’t mean everyone will end up agreeing with you or your project. Some groups can’t be won over no matter how compelling your argument is.
The trick is to pick your battles, so here are three tips for choosing the right people to engage with — and how to deal with difficult stakeholders.
Know your stakeholders
Start this process by mapping all the entities likely to affect, or be affected, by a development or project. Then assess them in terms of interest and influence.
When working on a story, the late ABC journalist, Mark Colvin, would ask the questions "Who runs this town?", "Where does the money go?" and "Cui bono?" (Who benefits?). These questions are also relevant in identifying the key stakeholders of any project as well as “who will be impacted?”, “who has something to lose?” and “who has the final say?”
It is also useful to identify the groups within that map that will be difficult to persuade. Thanks to social media, vocal opponents can make their opinions heard with minimal expense and effort. It is important to understand who they are and how engaged they are with key decision makers and influencers.
Understand their (and your own) confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is when people choose to embrace information and data that confirms pre-existing views and opinions, while ignoring or rejecting information that casts doubt on them.
In other words, we select bits of data that make us feel good because it confirms our prejudices.
Understanding confirmation bias helps us to recognise that while some stakeholders will be influenced by facts, others simply refuse to be persuaded. It also helps us to craft our messages and engagement methods. Instead of arguing the point, look for other areas of importance to these stakeholders.
Making it work
Picking battles doesn’t mean ignoring those who are the most vocal in opposition, but it does require you to accept some groups may not be won over - and acting accordingly.
Spend the most time and effort engaging with the key decision makers and the stakeholders with the most influence over them. Engage with these groups regularly and provide them with well-structured messages, supported by facts and figures. Also, identify what is important to them and craft key messages taking this into account.
When it comes to opposition groups, create opportunities for them to provide you with regular feedback, preferably in small groups. Also look for areas of common ground. While you may not agree with their perspective, showing stakeholders empathy and respect goes a long way. It also shows third party regulators that you made a genuine effort to work with all stakeholders.
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