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Stakeholder Management. First and Foremost: Know Your Stakeholders (KYS)

When facing a challenge – regulatory, reputational, or otherwise – companies often find themselves unprepared. The reason may be simply the failure to anticipate the challenge. However, a more frequent occurrence is the lack of a robust stakeholder mapping and activation plan. That is because it is nearly impossible to conduct such planning on the eve of a potential issue, let alone in the middle of it. But how do you select which stakeholders are relevant, given the vast array of players that may be involved? How can you Know Your Stakeholders before you need them?


The key is to conduct a stakeholder mapping exercise that is very targeted and very broad at the same time. There is no contradiction here: a targeted stakeholder mapping results in a list of individuals and organizations that may have an impact on the specific issue at stake, as opposed to a general list of people and entities that may be involved – or have been involved in the past – on a different issue. This is the ‘targeted’ part of the exercise. The ‘broad’ part consists of drawing additional circles around this first layer, embracing all other stakeholders that may be influential.


An initial stakeholder mapping process could look like this:


1. Firstly, identify and write down who the decision-makers are on your issue. If it’s a government-led regulatory threat, identify with the highest precision who will draft that regulation (technicians, policy experts, etc.) and who will decide on its approval (for instance, a regulatory agency board). More often than not, companies are not crystal clear about who is deciding and make the naïve mistake to think that it is ‘the government,’ or ‘the Prime Minister,’ or the head of the regulatory agency alone, thus overlooking the specific procedures that apply to the case in question.


2. Second, consider those stakeholders who have a direct interest in the success of your organization and, as such, are naturally set out to help. Employees and shareholders fall into this category. Past and current consultants and advisors do too. When conducting a stakeholder mapping, you should view them as part of your team, brainstorming with you on the possible solutions to your problem. This type of stakeholder will be interested in sharing their knowledge and relationships with you because your success is their success.


3. Third, start listing all the different players that may have a say and whom the decision-makers will be hearing. This should include technical and scientific committees and individual experts reporting to the decision-making bodies. This is also the stage where you should also consider those ‘voices’ that, while not formally part of the process, will indeed carry weight if they express their opinions. This includes ‘heavy weight’ experts, important research hubs and universities, but also diplomats of other countries if the regulation has trans-national implications (e.g., technical barriers). It would also be helpful to list down journalists and reporters who have written about that issue since a significant media headline will likely increase pressure on the topic and influence the debate.


4. Fourth, you should now map individuals, associations, and other organizations that can do or say something relevant for the third group because of their role or links. This should include civil society groups, activist groups, additional experts, but also your consumers, depending on the issue. For example, will the regulation affect their ability to continue buying your product? Will it change its fundamental characteristics or its availability? In such a case, it would help to research whether your consumers are organized in groups that may be able to speak up. Notably, at this stage, you should also take stock of all your existing relationships and check whether they would be willing to play a role in your issue.

5. Fifth, map stakeholders whose interests are opposed to yours. As such, they won’t help you, but they need to be monitored and, when possible, mitigated by increasing the voice of stakeholder type 4.

It should now be clear that stakeholder mapping is a targeted, collaborative, and creative exercise and is a fundamental component of any Public Affairs strategy. It aims to be a solid basis for establishing a stakeholder activation plan that, along with a plan to follow-up with stakeholders during ‘quiet times,’ form the three elements of a comprehensive stakeholder management plan. However, managing stakeholders should not be deemed a functional exercise to overcome certain deadlocks but rather a mindset that views organizations as part of a more extensive system whose components will inevitably overlap and impact each other. The mission of Public Affairs is indeed to give order to this system by creating relationships that can facilitate the achievement of the objectives of all the stakeholders involved.

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