(Note: This is the first installment of a two-part blog.)
Are you an engagement imposter? I know I was! Here is my story and what I have learned on my journey so far.
I’m new here at Delaney + Associates and as a communications professional with several years of experience under my belt, I’ve done a fairly good job at times convincing myself and others of my “robust” efforts to engage stakeholder groups and the public. I’ve identified and nurtured relationships with stakeholder groups, considered them while developing communications plans, invited them to meetings to hear their thoughts, gathered intelligence, conducted interviews, visited stakeholder websites, and developed strategic considerations with results from public opinion research reports in mind etc, etc, etc.
“I know my audiences and exactly what messages they need to hear and how to reach them.” My work here is done, right?
Does this ring a bell? If so, I fear that you are in for the same rude awaking I received a little over a year ago. But don’t fret – you’re not alone. Many of us are guilty of spending a good portion of our career operating under these assumptions – not to mention that authentic stakeholder engagement is still a relatively young field and way of doing business.
Let’s begin by addressing a harsh reality.
Engagement is not public relations or social marketing.
It is not developing a communications plan to reach your audiences with the messages and activities you think they want to hear. It is not “strategically” communicating a difficult issue to the public in a way that makes your organization look favourable. It is not convincing people that they need to modify their behaviour. And it is most certainly not orchestrating an event or series of events to attract attention to your brand, cause, or the “right decision”.
Don’t get me wrong; some of the things I mentioned above can be important to the work we do as communicators. There is often a valid business case for doing them; otherwise, the vast majority of us would be unemployed. Many of these functions, in fact, when done properly, do play a part in the bigger picture of an authentic engagement process and help us build credibility with our stakeholders.
Building these relationships is important! They help stakeholders put some “stock” in the organization we represent and any engagement processes we want to carry out – if and when the time comes. The fact remains, however, that although these activities can support engagement processes, we often use them as stand-alone activities to tell stakeholders and the public something, or to achieve our own organizational objectives, not to help them simultaneously achieve theirs.
If there is no decision to be made, or the public cannot be not involved to some extent or be included in the decision-making process, it’s not engagement – period.
And so the question: “How do I avoid being an engagement imposter?”
I’m glad you asked!
In my next post, I’ll be considering how authentic engagement processes can lead to better outcomes for your organization and, by contrast, how staged or unauthentic engagement processes can tarnish the reputation of your organization.