CSR stakeholder engagement is for life, not just for Christmas

2degrees' most popular webinar of 2014 (so far) revealed the fascinating insight from an expert panel on how to make CSR stakeholder engagement really effective. Belgians, orangutans and much more...

There is still plenty to be done to deliver and identify the value of stakeholder engagement

With hundreds of CSR professionals listening in from around the world, from organisations as diverse as the Welsh Government and Walmart de Mexico, 2degrees and myself today led a virtual roundtable discussion with a truly expert and purposely opinionated panel to tackle the big questions around CSR stakeholder engagement.

Talk of GRI G4, materiality, transparency and stakeholder engagement has dominated the world's leading collaboration platform for sustainable business for the past few months. In response, 2degrees brought together a selection of peers and commentators that have been at the heart of these conversations.

I was delighted to be joined by the "godmother of CSR reporting" (sorry Elaine...) Elaine Cohen of Beyond Business, Peter Collins of RSA Insurance Group, Rachel Depree of Sky and Rowland Hill of M&S for a session that ditched the usual powerpoint presentations and just went straight to the Q&A on the issues that mattered most to a record-breaking audience.

Questions and requests poured in during the lead-up to the session and very quickly, 5 common questions formed. The 2 most popular of which where tackled by the panel following a quick poll of the audience (thus leaving a no doubt eternally grateful panel) just minutes to gather their thoughts!

Here's a snappy summary of what came out from the discussion and what I consider the key takeaways:

Question #1: How can we make stakeholder engagement an efficient and effective on-going process, not just a periodic one?

Elaine's thoughts included:

Build a dialogue with your stakeholders. Establish and use a direct line of communication to them. Evolve an on-going platform. As well as ensuring that you utilise existing corporate channels to engage your stakeholders, you also do need to make sure you have more strategic and dedicated conversations around sustainability and materiality however and creating and nurturing a sustainability advisory board can be one great way of doing that.

Some of Rowland's opinions were:

Stakeholder engagement jargon can get in the way. Companies are quite often talking to their stakeholders all the time anyway – the skill is capturing that to harness to your advantage to inform CSR. An over-reliance on just surveys can be a sign of failure to achieve that. Another way to view stakeholder engagement is to see it as a regular and important "temperature check" of what you're doing and on the progress on commitments.

Rachel's perspective included:

Stakeholder engagement is happening everywhere, all of the time, in your business. Harness that. The reporting process at Sky feeds into the stakeholder engagement and vice versa. You also need to make sure you’re keeping your stakeholder engagement processes evolving, as your business evolves.

A selection of Peter's views were:

“Stakeholder engagement is dead, long live stakeholder collaboration”. Collaboration suggests working together on a common issue with your stakeholders and that the engagement actually contributes to a possible solution. It is not just a discussion. Plug in to your PR, media and comms teams to reach people that the sustainability team don’t always have direct access to.

Oliver's and 2degrees' thoughts are:

Get a dialogue with your stakeholders, NOT just a broadcast. Use a variety of methods and mediums to reach your target groups regularly and with a conversation (here's an example of O2 doing just that). Break your CSR report down into bite-size chunks to share over time with your stakeholders and include social media to amplify. Think about those stakeholders you don’t know and/or cannot reach easily - don't just ask the usual suspects!

Question #2: How do you effectively engage stakeholders to inform materiality?

Peter's thoughts included:

Surveys can work but a caution is that you can get diminishing returns from surveys and this means that the results can get skewed by those that are more likely to respond and have burning issues to raise. Talk to the PR team about what the journalists are asking them. Talk to the customer teams about what customers are saying and complaining about.

Some of Rachel's opinions included:

Build your stakeholder engagement around your strategy development and reviewing, to effectively feed into it. What is unique about your business? What are the strengths and how can your business make a material difference in the world? There is a shift in CSR reporting from risk-based conversations with stakeholders; to more discussion around strategic opportunities (that fed into the launch of Sky Sports' Living for Sport). The ongoing dialogue also helps track how effective it is being for you and your stakeholders and helps it evolve to be even more effective.

A summary of Rowland's discussions included:

Look at the frameworks and check-lists out there. Look at peer reports and their targets. Look at the media research available to you. Use the access you have to advisory boards (that should be a capacity building exercise that cannot be solely relied upon for every issue). Think carefully about the axes on your materiality. Are you a function or value-based business? A values-based business like M&S can afford the odd operational slip-up, but losing one that is intrinsically linked to values can leave you dead in the water and vice-versa is definitely worth it.

Elaine's thoughts included:

That “not all stakeholders are born equal”. Should you have a stakeholder matrix to define who your most important stakeholders are? Spot risks before they blow up in your face (a la Nestle and palm oil)

Oliver & 2degrees' beliefs are:

Ensure the materiality discussion is with the same people that you want to actually read your report/strategy and that you also will want to collaborate with to deliver on the commitments. The theory is that those who have helped build something of value, will be more likely to proudly engage around it and share with others when it is ready.

The session closed with a poll on how happy the audience was with how they measured their return from stakeholder engagement.

71% are not happy; 16% don't feel they need to; and 13% are happy with their methods. This shows there is still plenty to be done to deliver and identify the value of stakeholder engagement.

One thing is for sure - stakeholder engagement is for life, not just for Christmas.

Missed the webinar? You can catch the full recording here.

Stay tuned for more in this series around stakeholder engagement and reporting, including the 2degrees Live: CSR Reporting & Performance Summit on 5th June in London.

For more information on how 2degrees helps organisations to add scale, depth, focus and a dialogue for your stakeholder engagement - check out the 2degrees Stakeholder Dialogue Service or contact me direct.