Once you have reviewed the issue and made a decision on whether or not to adopt the requested position, determine your engagement strategy to communicate your position. Based on your evaluation of the group making the request and your position on the request itself, the next step is to decide if and how to respond to the group. Engagement is not all or nothing, but falls on a continuum and can take many forms, ranging from a simple written response to in-person meetings and an ongoing relationship. Consider your goal and the potential outcomes from engagement:
At a minimum, engaging with groups seeking to influence your position is an opportunity to better understand the issue and their perspective, to learn about the group and how much they know about the topic. It’s also an opportunity to correct misinformation if needed and provide a more balanced or informed view of the issue. You may also be able to form an opinion of how trustworthy they may be, gauge the likely success of further engagement and get a sense of what the next steps may be. If nothing else, engagement allows you to demonstrate that you listened and tried to find common ground; important in building trust with your stakeholders.
Don’t kill the messenger because of the message. Don’t assume because someone is critical of a practice or position that they are hostile or unreasonable or someone with whom you can’t engage. While you may not agree with your critics or share their viewpoint or objectives, in most cases they are genuinely committed to their cause, not just out to attack. Beneath layers of disagreement about policies and practices often lies a value that is shared by both stakeholders and the company. It may relate to protecting natural resources, ensuring animal well-being, addressing food insecurity or malnutrition or other issues. Identifying shared values can be the first step in developing trust that becomes the foundation for successful engagement. Being able to communicate your commitment to a shared value, even when you don’t adopt the proposed solution, helps demonstrate your commitment to sustainability and builds trust.
More often than not, engagement at some level is better than ignoring groups who may be critical of your company or practices. Effective stakeholder engagement is increasingly complex. Not all stakeholders are created equal – some are intractable ideologues and others may be reasonable reformers. Engaging ideologues may result in pointless confrontation, while reformers may bring positive change or a new understanding of the issue. In most cases, it’s important to engage and listen. A willingness to engage stakeholders demonstrates the organization is reasonable, rational and open to considering a variety of perspectives on complex and controversial issues. The extent of engagement and how you engage can be calibrated initially and adjusted over time based on your evaluation of the group and initial interactions.
Engagement doesn’t mean you agree with or endorse the group making the request. Engaging in a controlled and thoughtful way can limit the risk as well as set the stage for a respectful interaction, regardless of the outcome.
Here are some guidelines for engagement: