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Community relations: what motivates stakeholders?

STAKEHOLDERS - persons who involve themselves with activities at a public or private business because of personal or professional interest

Coordinating a full community relations campaign involves planning how to interact with stakeholders who have different ideas, different personal interests and different incentives.

To stay competitive, most businesses - including public companies, private firms and government agencies - mesh community relations activities into their daily routines. Whether the business involves generating electricity, manufacturing pharmaceuticals, cleaning up hazardous waste, or any number of other activities, identifying the need for community affairs programs and reaching out to community stakeholders is vital to succeed. Acknowledging what motivates people to become business stakeholders and distinguishing influential stakeholders are two strategies that can help turn routine community relations campaigns into outstanding ones.

Typically considered a soft business function, community relations departments often do not get as great a lion's share of corporate budgets as higher-profile departments. But in a litigious society, a controversial project can be significantly delayed or even halted in court because of inattentive or poorly executed community outreach. Many projects involving major, sensitive operations are routinely realigned because of litigation that started with community disapproval.

For example, witness the Shoreham nuclear power plant siting effort on Long Island, N.Y. The Long Island Lighting Company - famous for having one of the highest utility rates in the U.S. - invested billions of dollars and almost completed construction of a nuclear generating station just east of New York City. This station never became active to generate power, though, because the state decided that persons on Long Island could not safely evacuate the island in the event of a nuclear emergency. Long Island Lighting was directed to dismantle their newly constructed station.

In 1997, a proposed merger between Long Island Lighting and another local utility again has raised community alarm. At this point, community leaders are concerned that the financial burden of decontaminating and deconstructing the Shoreham plant will be farmed out to customers previously considered outside the Long Island Lighting client base. This controversy may have to be settled in court. Earlier community awareness and preparedness could have saved the company, ratepayers and local governments considerable construction and deconstruction costs. Two Strategies to Highlight Community Relations Outreach Campaigns:

1) Determine what motivates active stakeholders 2) Identify especially distinguished stakeholders and meet their special needs

Stakeholder Motivation

Business leaders need to know what motivates active stakeholders if they are to craft their most effective outreach programs. As we all know, most people who conduct routine business with a company (passive stakeholders) do not take the time to participate in community affairs. All of the customers of an electric utility, for example, will not go out of their way to contact a community affairs office to learn more about the service or comment on regulatory issues.

Active stakeholders, on the other hand, are the ones who visit information centers, attend public meetings, make phone calls, write letters, speak with news media and otherwise participate in business affairs that were once considered off-limits to the public at large. Coordinating a full community relations campaign involves planning how to interact with stakeholders who have different ideas, different personal interests, and different incentives.

At one time, business stakeholders simply included persons who had immediate standing in local projects. Today, individual empowerment rights embrace almost anyone who shows interest in a project. Some of the staunchest resistance for a waste disposal project, for instance, may come from an environmental group based in another locale that might not even have a local chapter.

Three Types of Community Stakeholders:

1) Dedicated 2) General 3) Specific-interest

Dedicated Stakeholders

Dedicated stakeholders are persons who commit themselves to participating in the activities of a particular business. In number, dedicated stakeholders typically make up only about 5 percent of total project stakeholders, but they can write more significant letters, make more phone calls, generate more media exposure, and become more involved in day-to-day operations than other stakeholders.

What motivates these stakeholders to become personally involved with sensitive projects that often have potential environmental or public health impact? In a capitalist society, one logical possibility might be financial. Indeed, many persons are interested in a Superfund clean-up project, for example, because they want to know how the project will affect the value of local properties. But these are most often specific shareholders with streamlined interests and questions. Money does not seem to be a primary motivating factor for dedicated project stakeholders. They tend to have no apparent financial gain or loss in the balance.

A second possibility might be personal health and safety. Many stakeholders do inquire about hazardous and radioactive waste toxicity, safe exposure limits, and long-term vs. short-term health threats. As might be expected, people show keen interest in learning about pollutant dangers to themselves and their children. But again, persons with specific health concerns most often ask defined questions. While their concerns may be more comprehensive than effects on property values, these people tend to be specific-interest stakeholders. Dedicated project stakeholders tend to stretch beyond this level of immediate concern and focus on all aspects of a project. The umbrella of interest for dedicated stakeholders might cover project cost, scope, implementation plans, political authorities, scheduling, safety planning and crisis management.

A third possibility could be environmental concern. While this can be seen as a specific interest, environmental stakeholders often act as both specific and dedicated stakeholders. Many are wholly dedicated to halting or modifying certain projects because they feel their actions will necessarily help protect the natural environment. Environmental organizations are quite accustomed to filing suits in the attempt to derail projects - such as timber harvesting, landfill siting and industrial plant erection. Today, some far-sighted government and commercial interests are in the habit of cooperating in good faith with dedicated environmental organizations.

But there is another factor that drives certain dedicated stakeholders that is not so readily understood. This can probably be best described as a higher calling. While some people might dedicate their lives to care for the ill or help the needy, some people dedicate their lives to influencing business activities they perceive as having potential drastic consequences. These activists are not shy about clashing with authorities in charge since they appear to be serving a greater public good. They do not seem to be solely driven by a desire to improve their own lots.

Dedicated stakeholders know how to work the news media to their advantage. Because they usually have no apparent self-interest in their cause, they can often assume a superior moral posture. News articles pitting lone activists versus multinational conglomerates generally get strong media attention and audience approval.

For instance, Greenpeace - a dedicated stakeholder on many fronts - has a reputation of pitting its members and its noble sea vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, against major international players (like the paper products industry, the oil industry, and even federal governments). Making sure to notify appropriate print and electronic media, Greenpeace activists often will stand in the teeth of their adversaries to defy actions they feel are contrary to responsible environmental management.

And the press will gladly do its part to broadcast such conflict to the world. Being broadcast across the world as a humble activist committed to saving the planet works for Greenpeace. Its adversaries, on the other hand, are typically not seen in such favorable light. Instead of being seen as a radical group in the public eye, Greenpeace and other groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund are now regarded as significant players on the international front, worthy of respect and dialogue.

But certain dedicated stakeholders can let their zeal for a project carry them across the line of law and order. Assault charges involving dedicated stakeholders, for instance, are not unheard of. Authorities have even investigated death threats made against persons involved with certain projects, including waste disposal campaigns. While these threats may be made in the heat of the moment, they must be taken seriously and never dismissed casually.

For instance, the environmental group Earth First! has made its reputation by physically interfering with logging projects (by spiking trees that can injure chain-saw operators) and other environmental-impact campaigns in ways that have resulted in serious personal injury and even death. These are extremes, though without a doubt, most dedicated stakeholders are honest citizens who do not cross the law-and-order boundary.

General Stakeholders

About 20 percent of the people who involve themselves with a business project are general stakeholders interested in basic project information. General stakeholders include school children, local citizens not directly affected by a particular project and people from out of town. Often driven by simple curiosity, these participants are interested in gross figures (like budget allotments), learning plant schedules and finding out the number of people affected by an operation. General stakeholders are not usually interested in the nuts and bolts of an operation, and they usually do not commit themselves to long-term stakeholder participation. A single visit to an information center tends to satisfy their interests.

Specific Stakeholders

Most people who are interested in a project campaign can be termed specific-interest stakeholders. They want to know exactly how the operation affects them or their livelihoods. Specific stakeholders are often driven by business priorities, and their umbrellas of interest may cover the status of a specific property, job opportunities, liability factors, public opinion or area real-estate ramifications.

Specific-interest stakeholders have exact questions about how a project affects them. They do not visit an information center to ask general questions. This group includes persons directly affected by project operations, prospective home owners, local attorneys, local hospital staffs, emergency medical technicians, school students and teachers, business consultants, real estate brokers and even project employees. (Employees can especially influence public attitude since they communicate directly with the outside world during their daily lives off the job.) In number, they make up about 75 percent of project stakeholders.

Of course other issues - such as environmental, or safety and health, concerns - also drive specific shareholders. People interested in the environmental impact of a certain government project (such as cleaning up a municipal property contaminated with hazardous wastes) might attend a public information center to gather certain facts. If not fully satisfied, they may submit Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain more specific information (such as historical records, financial data or government correspondence). Once their questions are answered, specific-interest stakeholders are typically satisfied.

Distinguished Stakeholders

The specific stakeholder category includes persons who wield significant influence over a given business activity. These influential people are known as distinguished stakeholders, and they may include local political officials, regulators, health administrators, attorneys or property owners. In an ideal world, all stakeholders would command equal attention from community outreach offices - but we all know community outreach resources are limited. To use these resources most effectively, the best community relations teams must focus on their most distinguished, weightiest stakeholders. Helping a local congressman gather details to support significant legislation, for instance, has to be moved ahead of speaking at a local civics club. Making sure the local mayor and city council have all the latest facts has to be given priority over conducting routine information center affairs.

When it comes to hitting the community relations bulls-eye most accurately, a rifle is a better tool than a shotgun. To hit the desired target, the audience must be clearly sighted and the means of reaching that audience carefully selected. Whether the business is power production, pharmaceuticals manufacture, oil drilling or radioactive waste disposal, key community stakeholders make the decisions that count. These leaders mold public attitudes about central community issues.

Failing to recognize what motivates key community players means missing a key facet of community relations. Understanding what is important to these customers - and satisfying their individual concerns - streamlines community relations campaigns, improves company image and achieves outreach objectives.

Stuart V. Price has focused his career on environmental communication, including working as a consultant and developing environmental training programs. He lives in New York City.
COPYRIGHT 1997 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Price, Stuart V.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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