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By Alexander Geiser, CEO, FGS Global

When Davos first convened, the world was a lot simpler. Leading was relatively straightforward and communications was generally uncomplicated. Media outlets operated by and large professionally and their relationship with governments, companies and other organizations maintained a sense of order and control.

Those days now seem like the distant past. This year’s theme at Davos was 'Cooperation in a Fragmented World,’ a perfect representation of the shift in global perspective. We are in a new era, in which companies can no longer prioritize shareholder returns above all and must build cohesive short- and long-term strategies. Corporations are beginning to understand that making a trade-off between purpose and profit is no longer viable.

Today, stakeholders come in all shapes and sizes. Each with different agendas, these stakeholders have both the tools and the means to communicate, and they are making their voices heard – often in undesirable ways.

This makes it much more difficult for leaders to communicate and, hence, to lead. A company can no longer just “talk to the market” or get its points across to a target government and consider its job done. This poses a difficult challenge that is getting a lot of attention: messages need to be broad enough to appeal to diverse audiences but detailed enough to resonate, and they need reach everyone at the same time.

To help leaders navigate these challenges posed by the stakeholder era, here are some points to consider when designing a communication strategy:

Make a map

The first step is to figure out whom you need to address and to be sure not to leave out key groups or individuals. However, with finite resources, particularly time, it is important to prioritize stakeholders.

Listen before you talk

You cannot understand the perspective of others without conversation. Either directly, through meetings, or often social media these days, or indirectly, through the news media - the objective is to communicate with stakeholders, not just to them, in order to get their feedback. This can be an uncomfortable process for many leaders and corporations, but it is essential.

At times a company may want to listen and learn about an issue; other times it may want to influence the perspectives and behaviors of its audience. Either way, companies must be transparent about their objectives to make stakeholders believe they are part of an open, honest dialogue where they can influence the outcome. This is more likely to inspire stakeholders to reveal their true position, which is essential to building an effective communication strategy.

Actions must reinforce your words

The saying goes “actions speak louder than words.” This is particularly true if they contradict your public positions. Unsupported words can ring hollow and breed skepticism, even cynicism. The key is to make sure your actions and words reinforce each other. The good news is that every communication with your stakeholders has the potential to be a positive force: to increase their understanding of your position; and their participation in shared goals.

Silence can be deafening

Silence can say a lot. Audiences form their own conclusions and they are rarely the ones you want: namely that you don’t care or are not paying attention. The days of companies keeping quiet and hoping no one notices are over. This is especially true of social issues such as human and sovereign rights. Increasingly, stakeholders are expecting companies to take hard stances on matters they traditionally never would. Putting these on the radar early and debating your company's position internally is critical to avoiding the defensive “No comment.”

Change is the only constant

What is considered ethical and socially responsible behavior for a company can evolve rapidly. To many people, the environment now trumps the economy, making coal a four-letter word. The only way leaders and corporations can stay on top of these changes is to communicate with diverse stakeholder groups. These conversations are critical to honing managerial decision-making and thus corporate governance.

As a leader, empathy, authenticity, and consistency leads to trust and credibility. Easy to say, sometimes hard to do. There is no longer any way around talking to your stakeholders. Acknowledging this simple truth is the first step on the road to doing so.

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