Responding to Requests for Commitments

4Plan Engagement Strategy

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:

  • Best: Mutual understanding, form collaborative relationship, public endorsement of your company or brand
  • Provide balancing information to better inform their position. Agree to ongoing dialog or agree to disagree
  • More challenging: No common ground possible, public attack on your company or brand. While this may be more challenging to manage in the short term, consistently maintaining a principled approach to similar requests will allow you to build credibility with multiple stakeholders over time. Changing practices frequently when pressured can make your company a target for others seeking to advance their position on a variety of issues. Basing your decision based on your sustainability priorities and business objectives are the best long-term strategy.

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.

  • If declining the request, plan an engagement strategy that emphasizes your sustainability priorities and the impact of the request on other commitments
    • The response should acknowledge their concern, communicate current priorities and reiterate commitment to sustainability to the group
    • Evaluate whether there is value in continuing the engagement, and if not, end engagement
      • Value can be determined in the following ways:
        1. Does the group offer a perspective that could help inform the company on the issue or sustainability strategies?
        2. Are they willing to engage constructively, or are they simply trying to agitate to promote their agenda?
    • Publicly communicate current sustainability commitments and progress concurrent with communicating your decision to the group
    • Be prepared for a negative reaction to your response. Prepare to activate your response plan if needed to again

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.

  • If agreeing to the request, plan an engagement strategy to discuss the request, and potential partnership in communicating your position publicly.

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:

  • Be sure you’ve thoroughly researched the organization and individuals involved, and have considered the potential outcomes from engaging.
  • Set ground rules and parameters upfront. Specify the amount of time, the number of participants and who they will be. If it is not a telephone conversation, meeting on “neutral ground” – not at either organization’s offices – can help create a balanced environment for an initial discussion.
  • Before you meet, set your own objectives for the discussion. What do you hope to learn and to communicate? What information are you willing to share and importantly, what is off-limits, such as business strategies, cost of production or other financial information?
  • During the conversation, be respectful and calm. Remain professional at all times.
  • Listen with an open mind and look for common values as a starting point for understanding.
  • Establish expectations and secure agreement on information sharing. Is your dialogue private and confidential, or can the group share that they are meeting and the content of the discussion? If they can share, with whom and in what format? Make sure expectations are clear and that continued dialogue depends on following the ground rules established.
  • If the group is unwilling to engage on the basis you specify or if they deviate from the agreed-upon parameters, it may be appropriate to discontinue the engagement. Be prepared to respond to criticism for breaking off engagement and to explain your rationale to other stakeholders. Choosing to engage or not engage both come with the risk of public criticism from various stakeholders. Be prepared to address such criticism as you work through the process.