Engaging and Influencing External Stakeholders for Product Stewardship Advocacy
Companies’ stewardship responsibilities have expanded dramatically, in part because the expectations of stakeholders for corporate stewardship have come to include customers, NGOs and other entities. “What they want from us with respect to product stewardship has grown and grown significantly,” said Robert Shimp, program director for the Product Stewardship and Regulatory Council (PSRA), during a presentation at Product Stewardship 2017. “Collectively these pressures have a lot of potential business consequences.”
It follows that engaging these external stakeholders directly has become increasingly important. To help organizations build successful engagement programs, the PSRA recently compiled a report titled “Product Stewardship External Engagement and Influencing Strategies.” Shimp provided a summary of the publication to Product Stewardship 2017 attendees.
Two Fundamental Challenges
When it comes to engaging external stakeholders, the first challenge is to identify what’s most important to your company. “The most important thing we think you can do in this whole space is set some priorities on where you’re going to watch,” said Shimp.
Ask yourself, what are the ‘crown jewels’ of your business that need protection, management and continuous improvement? What are the most important underlying technologies behind your most important brands? Who are your key stakeholders? What are your key markets?
Likewise, as a company, you should ask what are the underlying values and policies you have that external issues could influence, and which of those are you prepared to keep an eye on to make sure there isn’t an outside force to affect your ability to deliver something you think is really important?
The second challenge occurs when an issue arises. Do you accept and adapt? Or do you engage and influence? Fundamentally, the decision product stewards need to make with their leadership is which of these two paths to take around any given issue, said Shimp.
The Path to Engagement
For companies that decided to engage on an issue, PSRA has developed a framework for influencing stakeholders.
What is the issue? The ultimate goal of this step is to define the issue and create an issue “brief,” said Shimp. At this stage, you should try to answer questions like, what are the underlying facts and science driving proposed regulatory actions? How is the issue being portrayed and perceived? What are the proposed solutions? What are they asking companies to do differently? What existing laws and regulations are relevant? Knowing this, what’s your initial position?
Who are the stakeholders? Stakeholder evaluations come down to understanding what’s important to each one. Agency regulators and scientists are not the only stakeholders. There’s a whole universe of people interested in any given issue. “Taking the time to understand who cares about the issue, either directly or indirectly … is very important,” said Shimp. The evaluation should also try to understand what outcomes stakeholders want and what are their core values and goals. Ask yourself, what do they want to accomplish, and how do they operate? What are their strategies and tactics? To what extent are they willing and able to negotiate?
What are the business impacts? Faced with an issue, companies tend to leap to this step of the framework. They should wait, however. Assessing the business impact is difficult until you fully understand the issue and the stakeholders, said Shimp. That said, there are four categories of impacts to consider at this stage: Financial, Strategic, Reputational and Opportunities.
How should your company respond? The next step in the framework is deciding how to respond. Shimp offered a matrix: On one axis is a continuum from “low priority” to “high priority.” On the other is a continuum from “unclear or unsupportable solutions” to “clearly defined and largely acceptable solutions.”
What is your engagement plan? The final step is, after you’ve decided to engage, is to envision what success looks like. Does it mean preventing a regulation? Delaying the regulation for some timespan? What are your positions and what will you communicate?
Shimp closed the presentation by invoking product stewards’ special role in supporting a businesses’ “societal license to operate.” Part of that responsibility is keeping pulse on the external world, recognizing the key issues most important to the company, and determining what is necessary to protect and nurture from a business standpoint. “I think this is an area that a lot of companies view as discretionary,” he said. “Don’t let it go to a crisis standpoint. This is an area we need to spend some time on.”
Principles for Engaging External Stakeholders
- Build trust
- Don’t assume your facts and science will automatically prevail.
- Avoid the tendency to be reactive and defensive
- Talk about complex topics in ways that stakeholders can understand.
- Establish personal relationships.
- Recognize that every stakeholder has a reputation to protect.
- Acknowledge that reasonable compromise is often necessary, as well as ‘agreeing to disagree.’
- Set realistic expectations; be patient.
- Be willing to adapt.