Stakeholders is a word widely used but is a topic rarely systematically managed by organisations. Despite this, the stakeholders - people, other organisations and communities who have a stake in what you do - can be huge determinants of your success.  

Stakeholders might include customer or service-user representatives, or groups who may have useful and or critical feedback.  They may represent a particular interest group who relate to you and your business. Or they may be a community affected by your operations and decisions. 

Stakeholders can provide feedback and expert critical opinion; they may be ways of getting your message across about what you offer and the services you provide; they may influence your regulators and Government; and they may have access to knowledge and resources that can add to your offer.  

Stakeholders may also be a distraction.  They may organise campaigns, pursuing agendas different from your core strategic approach.  They may have such an imperfect or limited view of what you do that they cannot comment well and fairly on what you do.  In extreme situations, highly critical stakeholders can harm your relationship with consumers, lead to changes in regulation that harm your business or organisation, and ultimately damage your organisation seriously.

Few organisations have structured approaches to stakeholder management.  I've learnt over the years that there are a number of good approaches.

1. Know and manage: Have a clear, corporately agreed understanding of who your stakeholders are and what priority you engage with them.  A useful start is to have someone in your organisation who keeps a single database of stakeholders (which can be complex and time-consuming or simple).  Data protection, cleansing and accuracy are important factors here.  An ideal approach is to retain your stakeholder data on a database that is created from an 'opt-in' system where stakeholders know they are on the list.  You should keep this up to date.  In Defra, I oversaw the merger of over 20 'corporate' lists to a single opt-in and accurate dataset of over 6000 organisations.  Smaller organisations will do it much simpler and simple off-the shelf applications can be used for managing lists.

2. Know who matters: Prioritise and know how you will relate to your stakeholders.  Don't over-complicate this, but know who are your high. medium and low priority 'Influencers'  - people who have power and can sway opinion - and who are your high, medium and low priority 'interested' - people with a self-generated interest in what you do.  Once you know where each of these sits, plot the two axes and then identify who is, overall, High, Medium, or Low.  Have a clear srategy for each category of stakeholder.

3. Involve and direct your leaders: Probably, you will find that corporate leaders need to take responsibility for managing relations with High priority stakeholders (high influencers, or high interest or both) and this can be useful in determining diary commitments for your corporate leaders - CEOs and Chairs of Boards.  Regular updates, especially when there is important news (good or bad) will be necessary, named contacts and/or relationship managers for complex relations (where there are many different parts of both organisations who inter-relate) are useful too,

4. Match your communications to their needs: Have tailored simple forms of communication - newsletters, e-shots, magazines and stakeholder events where you address the more passive information needs that are likely to dominate relationships with your Low and Medium priority stakeholders. In one organisation I worked with, an annual stakeholder group meeting grew into a popular and successful event.  This can also help target newsletters, which can otherwise sometimes be directionless mechanisms for communications.

5. Think ambitiously for complex situations: For very difficult, contentious, multi-stakeholder situations - for example where a major development is happening, or a large number of stakeholders are active on an issue or if there is a history of dispute and distrust, it is worth appointing someone independent to facilitate communication between stakeholders and with your organisation.  A skilled facilitator can be useful in running meetings and a good technique is to appoint an independent Chair, someone not aligned with any party, with a clear Terms of Reference.  I've seen this done well in cases in contentious planning cases (such as roads, pylons and quarries) and in situations where there is regular casework and dialogue needed, such as the new route of HS2 or relations between a large facility such as a factory or airport.  

Please contact me if you'd like any advice on stakeholder management in your organisation.