It’s Everybody’s Business: The New World of Stakeholder Engagement

November 11, 2006

I returned from a trip to LA where my wife and I “endured” record breaking heat while back home folks were more worried about their homes being washed away in record breaking wind and rain. Very enjoyable seminar with the Rogers Group–what a fantastic group of people they are–and some excellent conversations about the topic of instant news and crisis communications. I really enjoyed having at least one blog reader join us at the seminar. We will be planning some webinars and additional seminars in the new year so let me know if you want to make sure you are invited to any of these events.

The title of this blog post is the proposed title of a new book I have begun working on. Like Naked Conversations, I’d like this blog to be a collaborative place where readers can share ideas around the topic I propose to address. And I promise this: if you make a real contribution in thought or criticism, I will include you in the credits of this new book (if and when it ever comes out).

Here’s the basic idea. There used to be the public sphere and the private world. Business was part of the private world. My business was my business. My choices were pretty much my own. How I ran it was up to me. If someone outside of my private world questioned or challenged me, the response was most likely: It’s none of your business.

That world is gone. If you operate a business or organization that touches people outside the organization (and I have a hard time thinking of exceptions) then those outside your organization now believe they have a full right to express themselves on any topic related to your business. Not only to express themselves, but to be heard, to be responded to, and ultimately even to have veto power. This is remarkable. I was explaining what I was thinking of writing to a young woman in our office and she said, “of course I have a right to say what a business is doing.” She said, that is what she was taught in school, in home, in society. But, I pointed out, most businesses and organizations are run more by people in my generation (I’m 55) and so we didn’t have those expectations when we were young. Despite being in university during the late 60s and 70s, that cultural revolution didn’t immediately translate into a completely emboldened stakeholder attitude. That has only developed in the last 20 years or so.

In the world of PR and corporate communications, this issue takes the form of “transparency.” But there is far more to this idea that “your business is my business” than mere transparency. Stakeholders are not satisfied that you are being forthcoming and are not engaging in fraudulent practices or any coverup of any kind. They want, expect, and demand a higher level of involvement and control over what you do. Ultimately it is about power, and with a reference to those glorious 60s, it is about power to the people.

Respect for business seems lower than it ever has. Particularly large business, and particularly global giants who do not even have national loyalties. There is a simple equation at play: business=power=evil. That equation has great significance for leaders who operate these businesses. And it has great implications for how those leaders interact and engage with stakeholders. In short, there is a clash. One side feels even if it does not say: “It’s none of your business.” And the other side feels, even if it does not say, “What you think yours is really mine.”

That’s the idea. So, what do you think? Is there something here? Something work trying to develop into a full length work? Does it matter? Will anyone listen? Will it make a difference if they do?

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One Response to “It’s Everybody’s Business: The New World of Stakeholder Engagement”

  1. Neil Chapman Says:

    I believe your premise is a good one to pursue. Many in business are still in the mode of ‘it’s none of your business’ in their dealings with ‘indirect stakeholders’ (as opposed to direct stakeholders such as neighbors or investors), and many people believe they have the right to opine on businesses with little real understanding of their function/value. As with many things, there is a middle path. I hope the project could help in forging that path.
    Businesses have obligations to society. They do not exist within a vacuum: they need society’s approval, only granted when they perform a useful function; they should make the world a better place for their existence and ultimately give more than they take – giving in many forms such as jobs, taxes, contributions rents, services etc
    Where there is a disconnect today is that fewer people appear to fully understand the vital role businesses play within society. Economic development is seen as a given – but the reality is that society needs businesses to achieve it.
    Your book – ” Now is Too Late 2″ gave a good example of the young man welcoming Boeing’s departure from Seattle. So who did he think helped drive the flourishing economy?
    In my experience too often people want to say no to economic development, which is their right, but don’t understand the full consequences of such a stance.
    Both ‘sides’ need to find a more effective and engaging dialogue.Your idea would be a great drive towards that goal.


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