The time when communication was just a two-way process of information sharing is over. We now operate in the era of 360° communication, a framework in which data circulate the blogosphere and bounce between stakeholders in a chain reaction and at the snap of your fingers. The challenge is to give impetus to the process whenever desired, and to drive or influence it whenever needed. Digitalisation affects business in several ways, but its impact on communication is especially profound. It forces a shift towards more inclusive communication. The best way to outpace and optimize technology in communication is to forecast and capture stakeholder concerns upfront. This also implies giving them a voice in the process of reaching solutions and making decisions. That is what multi-stakeholder dialogue (MSD) is all about.
Why multi-stakeholder dialogue?
• Because the new public sphere - shaped by the internet - encompasses a plurality of voices that express themselves with unmatched speed and at transnational level. The global civil society is increasingly interconnected. Therefore, the ability to run the gamut of high-tech devices, social media platforms and software applications for proactive stakeholder engagement is paramount to business success
• Because MSD is a critical means of addressing our most significant global challenges – poverty, education, unemployment, climate change, food security, healthcare accessibility, etc. To tackle them, numerous organisations endorse an MSD-based business model: the Fair Labour Association , GAVI (vaccines), GAIN (nutrition), GPE (education), EITI (revenue transparency), UPFI (housing), WBCSD initiatives, or the UN Global Compact itself, and many more. This is evidence of MSD’s high leverage potential for instilling collective conscience and value consensus.
• Because there has been a fundamental change in the rules that govern communications. Three concepts - accountability, legitimacy and inclusiveness - have gained tremendous importance. All organisations (for profit or non-profit, publicly listed or privately-owned, service or industry-based) impact society while running their day-to-day activities, and thus all organisations are required to be accountable to society. Similarly, legitimacy is guaranteed only if granted by a majority of stakeholders including the vast ecosystem of influencers who shape opinions on and off-line. Inclusiveness is a prerequisite of the two first concepts. Clearly, there is no accountability and legitimacy if there is no stakeholder involvement.
How? Three tips to keep in mind
- Run a scoping exercise: the MSD concept implies conversing with all stakeholders, but not necessarily with the same intensity or at the same pace. A sense of hierarchy is needed to allocate the right level of time and resources. This is achieved through careful issue and stakeholder mapping combined with a materiality analysis. Those who have a stake in the organisation’s sustainability should come first.
- Juggle multi-facetted and tailored MSD campaigns: they may include perception surveys, polls, webinar series, benchmarks, workshops, research communities networks, grievance mechanisms, public forums, etc. The more tailored to your (stakeholders’) areas of interest they are, the more time and cost-efficient they will be.
- Keep your finger on the pulse: a single bout of exercise has limited effects. Consultation efforts must be sustained over time. Continuity is vital to secure a proper understanding of the public opinion landscape and act adequately upon it. In other words, MSD is deemed to be a communication “routine”.
Overall MSD plants a seed of trust in stakeholder relationships. It helps take on board various viewpoints, fill opinion gaps, and foster ownership of shared strategies and solutions. As such, it has become central to today’s global society and economy, and it provides powerful direction for efficient communications, corporate social responsibility and reputation management.