Improving stakeholder relationships through nets, neuros and algorithms


By Toni Muzi Falconi

Idea genesis

Public relations practice seeks to identify and convince potential influencers in advocating ideas, arguments, products and services in line with client or employer objectives, thus attempting to overcome the limitations of outreach and credibility.

The issue of relationships with stakeholders – powered by the increasing pressure of expectations on organizational decision processes – has become a vital concern for the licence to operate of every organization.

Today this permeates every managerial function.

Thus the need for coherent, yet autonomous, identification and engagement processes throughout the organization, as the Stockholm Accords clearly state when they define the contextual role of the public relator in today’s communicative

Since email technology – one-with-one, one-with-few and one-with-many – relationships have become limitless in theory. Thus, at least in part, overcoming the outreach constraint. More recently, the surge of social media has nurtured a new segment of influencers, which partially overcomes the constraints of credibility.

Considering measurement and evaluation tools: what about network analysis?

Operational tools to identify, qualify and effectively relate with stakeholders in line with specific organizational objectives, need to incorporate measurement/evaluation components, whose feedback allows timely corrections.

Network analysis (see Stockholm Accords Glossary for the definition) is one such tool, as it helps improve the governance of stakeholder relationships. The analysis of complex relationship networks leads to graphic representations of the quality of relationships between network participants, as well as amongst different networks.

This is where the concept of non-linear and immaterial ‘value networks’ – another fundamental pillar of the Stockholm Accords – may be effectively adopted.

Computers and neuroscience assist in identifying ‘relationship value’ networks amongst stakeholders:

  • internal
  • external or
  • boundary

Computer science allows the use of algorithms, which greatly reduce the need to research more than small samples of stakeholder groups. Likewise, neuroscience allows the integration of qualitative and quantitative indicators, which are closely connected to how relationships influence one another.

What are we really looking for?

Interactions within stakeholder groups (or between the groups) can reveal – through graphics – the primary relationship nodes, as well as their interconnections.

A mathematical analysis of these networks, supported by computer-led software, offers the essential numerical elements of specific indicators/variables.

This provides a dashboard from which management may:

  • reinforce
  • weaken
  • accelerate or
  • delay

the dynamics of those (stakeholder relationship) networks.

For example, the dashboard allows the public relator to identify those network participants who enjoy a higher number of relationships. Likewise, those who – in line with specific stated objectives – may be considered essential ‘political’ gatekeepers.

Other measurement and analysis possibilities:

  • the diverse proximities of network participants
  • the frequency of their relationships
  • the reciprocal influence by evaluating perceived power distance, trust, commitment and satisfaction in the relationship between participants in any specific ‘value network.’

João Duarte offers a practical approach

From a (seminal paper) presentation at the recent Slovenian annual PR conference, João Duarte states:

“…when solving a communicative equation we need to identify the variables and find out the values that can replace those variables to make the equation true.

For example, applying this to negotiation with stakeholders, one variable can be the amount / quality of resources that the organization can deliver to the stakeholder, be it:

  • a remuneration to a shareholder
  • the taxes paid to a municipality
  • the price of sale to a customer
  • a shared revenue to a partner
  • the amount of CO2 emissions allowed by environmental authorities
  • the number of layoffs for a union, etc.

These in turn can impact on other variables which are the different levels of these stakeholders’ relationship with the organization.

On the other hand, we need concepts and tools to measure the interconnectedness of internal and external stakeholders and the influence processes that take place between them…we need to create a sound conceptual field building on the supporting theories related to:

  • publics and stakeholders
  • stakeholder management
  • issues management and agenda building
  • relationship management, etc.

…which we already have in the PR field.

The major limitation is that many of these theories do not account for the relationships and the network nature of our present-day reality. Therefore, what we call a ‘new’ role is new in the sense that it needs to cope with a different context and requires the use of different tools.

As an example, to measure the interconnectedness of internal and external stakeholders, PR professionals can accomplish a great deal by using available social network analysis concepts and tools.

We can mention the thorough identification of the connectors, which bridge inside and outside:

  • degree of relationship of each specific stakeholder
  • the measurement of specific stakeholders’ closeness centrality (degree to which a specific stakeholder is close to the other stakeholders) or
  • ‘between-ness’ centrality (how often a specific stakeholder acts as intermediary in a relationship of any other two stakeholders…).”

How to begin?

The first phase gathers information on existing relationships.

For each relevant organizational objective, the public relator identifies specific stakeholder groups and investigates samples of these groups as to the required variables (which clearly vary, according to the objective).


1.    The five individuals with whom you interrelate the most.
2.    The individual or individuals who give you more ideas for the completion of your task.

The information fed in is processed across the specific algorithms. It is also scaled by adopting data-mining computer tools (for example intranet exchanges amongst employees in change management programs). The end result produces graphic representation of relationship dynamics.

Theory in practice: three simulated and recent cases

Some recent, simulated examples relate to my experience with Methodos, a leading Italian management consultancy and to the Italian Federation of Public Relations (Ferpi) association.

Case one

A client, in multi-tool department stores and 150 major suppliers, stage a five-day presentation of its suppliers’ products and services for its six thousand in-store salespeople.Methodos was tasked with devising a policy to reduce the overall effort in supplier relationships (time commitment, but also economic resources).

We used this event to explain, at the outset, to the 150 suppliers our objective and involve them in a questionnaire (to be completed before the end of the second day of the event), also assisted by a help desk.

The results are analysed and the ‘value networks’ identified. Not surprisingly, they are quite different from what the client imagined or expected.

We quickly define a new supplier relationship policy, discuss it and amend it according to client expectations. Methodos presented results of the analysis and the new policy in a final supplier meeting before the end of the event.

Case two

We had been working for a year on a change-management program related to a new leadership model that had involved 40 managers. The challenge was to enlarge the manager number from 40 to 80, then to 160, then to 320. Finally, to all 1,600 of its employees. A network relationship analysis of the existing 40 helped us identify specific characteristics we would have liked to find in the second group of 40. Then Methodos indirectly surveyed the 1,600 and discovered that half of them had those desirable characteristics.

A second, more specific analysis, of the 800 allowed us to identify the 40 who were most likely to participate eagerly in the program and also helped us identify the following enlargement..and so on.

Case three

When Ferpi issued a call for volunteers to develop the implementation program of the Stockholm Accords, we received 60 applications from senior professionals.

Methodos divided them into five working groups and in a few weeks developed an actual public relations program for 2011 and 2012.

We then agreed to develop at least 20 active advocates (similar to the four Minute Men of Creel and Bernays memory from President Wilson’s public information board of 1916).

What was identified was the needed characteristics, and sampled the original 60, selected the needed 20 and put them through a four-hour workshop where they identified the desired contents to be advocated according to the different stakeholder groups of the program. Now they are ready and beginning to engage other professionals and, most importantly, to interrelate with the business, the media, the tourism and the educative communities we selected as interlocutors of our advocacy efforts.


These are just three case studies on ways to improve stakeholder relationships through network analysis, neuroscience and algorithms; the possibilities are endless.

This post owes a great deal not only to João Duarte, but also to Professor Giampaolo Azzoni from the University of Pavia and to Andrea Carobene from GGL Italy, without mentioning the many stimuli received from David Phillips, Bruno Amaral, Heather Yaxley, Markus Pirchner and Judy Gombita.

(Note: Photo of Toni Muzi Falconi is the same one he’s using on his newish Twitter account.)

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36 Replies to “Improving stakeholder relationships through nets, neuros and algorithms

    1. This discussion has taken different directions and is slightly (if I may borrow from psychology….) schizophrenic.
      The problem, and not surprisingly, lies mostly in interpreting what others mean.
      So what else is new?

      My post referred to a tool and attempted to explain with practical examples how network analysis supported by other social, psychological and mathematic disciplines can support a public relations professional in better understanding value networks amongst stakeholders groups from an organizational perspective. Point.

      Anathema is, and always has been, a silly way to brush aside the need to think and to learn.

      I am particularly grateful to Inette for her contribution also because it confirms (along with Joao’s comments) that stakeholder relationship governance processes (which is what pr today is mostly about) are being adopted and applied in organizations.

      Also I am grateful to Don Radoli for having balked from intervening until now and finally offered very wise advice with which I entirely agre upon. You are certainly right in warning not to over complicate things in the analysis, but experience tells me that often individuals in groups are not aware of their standing in a ‘value network’ and that only a group analysis to identify significant nodes amongts participants is able to emerge and assist the professional in his/her operational activities.

      I share Heather’s preoccupation that we might be diving into another fad and recognize that Paul makes some very good points in his ‘considered analysis’.

      Joao, Andrea, David, Bruno, Sean and William really dug into the specifics and contributed, certainly for me, to clarify many a complex issue that I am confident will help me continue in this specific practice.
      This is where discussions help….

      I am sure that this is only a step, and that being fully aware of the risks but also of the tremendous opportunities this tool can provide, the exchange of experiences and of applications will continue.

      1. Thank you, but I really don’t think I have brought much to the conversation.

        My dissertation did focus on values and values systems applied online, but the equation that João proposes is much more interesting than my mathematical tool to identify online relationships. (Heather, I do agree with you on the basis of qualitative Vs. quantitative but that would be a new issue all together.)

        What I do like about this conversation is that it proves there is room and a need for a values systems aproach, or a value network approach (since we’re basically talking about the same things with different names).

        I read João’s paper and I think I have a way to solve his puzzle. But it’s too soon to say and chances are I am only half-right.

  1. In the last few months I have gone back to the drawing board to try to see where the internet goes next. It is, after all, five years since I last made big predictions.

    The evolutionary sciences are now becoming important because they are distinguishing what makes us human (the internet being a manifestation of deep human traits and needs – but that is another story).

    Alongside these developments are the developments in psychology. Notably, what is so powerful in this species that it can undo brain washing and yet have such powerful societal powers that can brutalise even the most sensitive soul.

    In its simplistic form, the work Bruno and I did in Lisbon, to identify the significance of the nexus of expressed values, has stood the test of time (the technologies developed for that research are here

    It helped us understand that relationships form round a nexus of values. The one thing we did not especially understand was how actors with common values ‘found each other’.

    Watching Dr Michael Mosley’s BBC programme The Brain: a Secret History ( was a revelation. It seems societal pressures and social norms we adopt are almost overpowering. We have a deep need to belong to a social group and to do so we are prepared to adopt even the most alien of its values. The more socially shared values, the longer the half life of the social cohesion.

    Then there is the compulsion to explore beyond the horizon, to listen to the travellers tales and thereby accelerate development of the technologies that make us so effective (the, so called, primitive technologies needed to leave Africa and be able to populate the Arctic a few years later are astonishing). Mankind was made to run long and hard but some other compulsion prompts us to search beyond the horizon.

    In doing so, we find actors over the brow of the hill with values we can share. Relationships are formed. The matrix of societal interactions allows values and technologies flow to all mankind. The lubricant that is public relations has probably been part of our DNA for tens of thousands of years, maybe millions.

    What we find is that it is human networks that allow all these amazing things to happen. The nature of networks is a very human thing.

    Today, as Bruno and I discovered, we can test the theory in social media and it works but, I am sorry Paul, it is not easy.

    Do such experiments have a role in PR? is one solution as Inette described, but it is not quite there yet because the core of groups are not defined by technological (hyper) link between actors but the nexus of values.

    The approach of stakeholdernetworks is too hard wired. It is the human network that defies the group/public, it is not stakeholder theory. Hard wired social structures are a trap I fell into in the 80’s ( The nexus of values is also not set. They change and relationships fall into disuse.

    I am not one to believe these things can be left to other practice or academic disciplines. They too have a need to shrug off the slough of past assumptions and so, perhaps, we carry less historic theoretical baggage (but probably less clout to get research funding).

    Is there practical application in public relations for such adventures. I believe there is and they need to be research based. But there is no doubt that we have to learn to research and live in and with a multi dimensional networked society.

    So far in this exchange we have not discussed the nature of multi dimensional networks (and can come to it another time).

    Today, these thoughts are not the day to day imperative for most practitioners but as we develop more windows on the most perfect machine mankind has so fare developed (the internet), organisations will need to be able to compete with it as it acts as an Agent driven by both humans and, exponentially more – often self programmed, technologies.

    For the record, this research should rank (in financial resources ) with work on areas such as sustainability, economics, medicine and philosophy because with out it, public relations will not be able to deliver the comprehension of the values involved in delivering the planet from ourselves.

    1. I have waited for some time before commenting hoping I would learn something new that may help us with effective stakeholder analysis.

      Unfortunately we seem to be digging deeper into the technological toolbox “hole. What is it that we really want to know about our stakeholders? And are there any simpler ways of finding out what we need know to enable us make informed decisions?

      Normally if one wants information one has to go to the primary source. This is a tried and proven method in the social sciences. If you want to know what your stakeholders think about your organization, ask them (survey, interview, representative sample, meeting etc ). Check for possible sources of error. And check whether their behaviour is or isn’t at variance with their stated position. Then symmetrically mutually adjust behaviour or as happens in some cases, agree to disagree. End of story.

      A thought experiment: How much would anyone know about Toni’s and Paul Seaman’s positions on various PR issues by undertaking network analysis of their interactions on this blog? I do of course exclude textual analysis (in the content analysis sense). Wouldn’t be simpler to ask the two gentlemen about their positions on various issues.

  2. Andrea and Toni: the fact that there is a trendy preference for psychobabble and jargon among marketing types and social engineers does not mean PRs should buy into this hype. I don’t doubt the Greg J. Stephens research’s results – but recording the brain’s neurological activation to a particular circumstance does not provide an explanation of anything much for what are socially determined responses. After all, all thoughts and emotions and reactions are mediated by the brain – we have known that for centuries.

    But there is something very like a new order of eugenics lurking in the mindset of this neuro-scientific behavioural school – categorizing people by their scanning their prefrontal cortex etc. This lays claim to being able to manipulate people through social engineering in a form that is straight out of Stalin’s era – he thought it provided him with the route to social control (George Orwell exposed the logical consequences of this stuff with great effect).

    Yes, tools are neutral – guns don’t kill anybody, it is people that do the killing etc.. But there is nothing neutral about the intentions of those who advocate exploiting our so-called neurological programming – it is straightforward manipulation by people who claim to be mind readers. Once the public gets its head around what this stuff is about, PR will be seen a public enemy number 1.

    Toni’s faith in the power of algorithms mirrors that of Google’s Eric Schmidt. He believes that Google can anticipate serendipity so that everything is tailored for people in advance of their wanting or desiring something. If this would be possible it would take all the risk out of capitalism and be a dream win win scenario. But – even if it were possible, which it is not – it would depend on Google retaining a monopoly, which is where choice upsets the applecart. We all know the struggle Google has managing its reputation, and such talk by Schmidt helps explain why.

    If PR wants to stay credible – it should stay well clear of any attempt to manage stakeholder relationships through nets, neuros and algorithms.

    1. I understand Paul’s opinion and I respect it.
      This opinion adds an other answer to Duarte’s question: “Why network analysis is still not being adequately considered from our side, while management consultancies are already making extensive use of it?”
      For Paul, “if PR wants to stay credible it should stay well clear of any attempt to manage stakeholder relationships through nets, neuros and algorithms”.
      I don’t believe so, (but this is only my opinion). On the contrary, I think that PR needs use scientific results and by them it can acquire more reliability. It’s an opportunity. Nothing more.

  3. One area that is advocated by Toni above that I am certain that we should avoid – not just because of complexity and the lack of expertise among PRs – is neuroscience. Any PR methodology that reduces human behaviour to genetically (or any other biologically) determined characteristics is on extremely dodgy territory. Do we really believe — or want to be seen to promote the idea of “cooperative or liberal genes” and in other forms of born- and hard-wired behaviour? I warn that before PRs get dragged blind into this arena, we should consider the wise words of Ted Honderich, the Canadian-born British-based Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London. He said that human conscious experience cannot be reduced to a ‘macroscopic quantum coherence, with Bose Einstein condensates (tunnelling photons in the brain) combining and microtubules microtubuling’. What he means is that human consciousness cannot be explained by how fibrous, hollow rods support and shape cells and by how they transmit information. Human consciousness is not a biological pre-programmed thing but a socially determined and evolving being.

    Putting this in plain speak, I say there is something very contradictory (not to mention embarrassing) about seeking to enable people to make informed choices and seeking to engineer choice-making by tweaking their neuro make-up. Moreover, even if that were possible – I say it is not – it would be a very suspect thing to attempt. If such practices were not morally suspect, then we should also learn to love – and endorse – the persuasive powers of propaganda. Heather Yaxley and me both separately, and I would hope convincingly, dissed neuroscience’s “influence” on PR a few years back. In short, the last thing PR needs is Voodoo theories that position us as manipulators out to rob people of their free will.

    1. I have not commented before on this post because I am not sure about it or the idea of organisations seeking to map stakeholder networks for influence purposes in this way. I do agree with Paul re neuroscience and PR/marketing as surely it cannot be right to think brands should be looking at the wiring of our brains even if this were feasible which I don’t think it is.

      One of my concerns generally about discussions of network mapping etc is that it seems to be a spurious measure. Today at a social media workshop I heard about systems that will automate and determine ROI from social media activity. But this all seems futile to me as it is quantifying what are essentially qualitative, human, variable, inconsistent and contradictory communications. Trying to work me out on the basis of my social media behaviour using algorithms feels like some weird archaeology process. You cannot know me from the mathematics of what I do online.

      I am more contrary than that as is Paul, Toni, Judy and everyone I ‘know’ in social media. Yes, we have opinions which may have some logic (from our perspectives) but these are open to debate or we wouldn’t all continue to be discussing what we think.

      Whether or not we have relationships with brands and whether or not they can, or should be trying to map our relationship is equally problematic. For example I am not a great fan of Carphone Warehouse generally, but it gave great service in replacing my Blackberry. So what does this mean? Nothing. I don’t care about the company, don’t want it to engage me, build a relationship, etc. It provided a service when I needed it – end of story.

      Maybe I am missing something here but it feels like just because technology can use data to identify stuff doesn’t mean we should believe this has much meaning or value.

      1. Heather, in my post not once is social media mentioned. This of course doesn’t mean that social media is not relevant in network analysis. But just for the record.

        1. Toni – I didn’t mean to imply that your original post was primarily about social media (although it was mentioned in it: “More recently, the surge of social media has nurtured a new segment of influencers, which partially overcomes the constraints of credibility.”) – just for the record 🙂

          My point really is that technology that enables evaluation of networks is most prevalent in relation to social media where there are many systems being promoted to organizations. Hence this is likely to be the area where software is applied before looking at ‘real world’ relationships. These seem to me to be promoting basic measures of connections or commentary rather than any real connection or relationship.

          I also do not think that any such software regardless of where the relationships is occurring is taking into account the perspective of the others. Therefore this is a one-sided attempt to assess and manipulate relationships for the good of organizations. When we start to talk about using neuroscience to support this, then I do get concerned about the ethical questions not just the maths.

          My final point is that in the main, most stakeholders probably don’t want anything more than a basic transactional relationship. Now maybe that type can be better evaluated – although I’m not convinced that all the customer relationship management approaches among our marketing colleagues has done more than produce database software that irritates rather than builds any relationship.

      2. Heather, network analysis as I approach it for the illustration of the communicative equation is not about monitoring individual’s behaviour nor about determining ROI of social media activity. It’s about being able to characterize the relationship environment of your organization and place your problems/ opportunities in that scenario so as to undestand publics, issues, etc (or the communicative variables of your equation). So from my point of view it’s much more aligned with what you correctly point out as the qualitative aspect of our work But this should’t mean that we should reject metrics (as I’m sure you agree) – indeed in network analysis there are a lot of very precise metrics to measure the role of each actor in the network for example.

        1. Thank you – I do understand the benefit of qualitative understanding and developing metrics provided that these have a clear meaning and do not over promise or simplify the complexity of life.

          I would also like to ask though whether such an approach is being considered for the benefit only of the organization – or if the concept is that network analysis is something that is shared with stakeholders and publics. That is, do all parties get a say in understanding the nature of the relationship based on a common set of data? Or is it all about understanding ‘them’ to the benefit of ‘us’, even if that data is viewed positively as providing valuable knowledge of what ‘we’ need to do to improve the relationship?

          1. Heather, making an organization more aware of the immediate stakeholders is not the real value of network analysis. But by looking at the network you can map nexus of causality and become aware of organizational consequences on “remote” stakeholders; but you can also anticipate potential actions by those “remote” stakeholders and their consequences on the organizations.

            If, as I’m sure is the case, we believe in PR as a science and an art based on two way communication and tendentially symmetrical (or as I have argued elswhere trilateral) governance of relationships; then the more aware you are about the network the greater potential you have to dialogue and generate benefits to “them” (whoever they might be), “us” but also to society as a whole.

    2. Paul,
      You pose two questions: the first about reductionism and the latter about ethic.
      I agree that human consciousness cannot be reduced to a biological pre-programmed thing. I agree too that human behaviour cannot be fully explained by genetic characteristics. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that neuroscience and genetic sciences are unimportant for PR. On the contrary, I think that these sciences give us new important tools to understand human relationships and behaviours. So, neuroimaging can reveal information about people preferences and judgements that are unobtainable through conventional methods. One year ago, “Nature” published an article by Dan Ariely and Gregory S. Berns intituled “Neuromarketing: the hope and hype of neuroimaging in business”. Ariely and Berns wrote: “The incorporation of neuroimaging into the decision-making sciences — for example, neuroeconomics — has spread to the realm of marketing. As a result, there are high hopes that neuroimaging technology could solve some of the problems that marketers face”. Still, “The issue of how culturally derived identities become embedded in the brain is of great interest, not only from a marketing perspective”. There is a “profound question of how the marketing of ideas affects decision making”. So, if neuroimaging can be a new tool for marketers (and advertisers), why it cannot be a tool for PR?
      By mean of functional magnetic resonance Greg J. Stephens, from Princeton University, demonstrated that during effective verbal communication, activity in the speaker’s and listener’s brains are coupled and mirror one another. He wrote than “This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate”. In my opinion, this is an important achievement for PR.
      By a philosophical point of view, I agree that reductionism is not a truly answer. The same quantum theory is not deterministic – but probabilistic – when we observe one single particle. However, reductionism is a tool which can help us to understand human relationships.
      The second question is about ethic. Neurosciences are tools and “tool” is a neutral word, without any moral judgement. Every tool is neutral.
      We must know and understand these tools in order to use correctly them.
      Understanding how people think is different to be a manipulator. When I be able to understand how people think I’ll be able to communicate better.
      Andrea Carobene

  4. Sean, Bruno, Joao: I am grateful for your fine additions and relevant comments.
    Paul, what can I say?
    As Joao implies, complication and complexity are two very different concepts.
    If one tries to simplify complexity life only becomes complicated.
    If one tries to simplify a complication, life then becomes inane.

  5. Thanks Toni for considering the communicative equation for discussion in your post. And thanks to all who have commented on it.

    On the issue of how much difficult it is to operate with such a methodology, shared by some of the colleagues commenting previously, I must add that the communicative equation concept aims to help the PR practitioner make sense of relationship scenarios, of stakeholders/ publics and how they connect to issues of relevance to an organization. The complexity of the current world makes it very dangerous to approach PR with simplified views and, I believe, no in-house practitioner nor consultant can afford to provide strategic advice with partial and one-sided information. In other words, the issue is how can PR professionals provide the best and most informed advice to their organizations and the communicative equation brings together existing knowledge in PR and network analysis to provide a possible approach.

    Additionally, the logic of the communicative equation is to connect stakeholder relationships with business objectives and to the overall management of a company. Therefore, the discussion of how to deal with / evolve specific relationships becomes integral part of the discussion of how to achieve the strategic goals of the organization.

    To achieve this, network analysis remains at the core of the communicative equation and, as some comments recognize, is a pivotal subject for PR consultants, practitioners, researchers and students. But why is this issue still not being adequately considered from our side, while management consultancies are already making extensive use of it to provide the type of advice that WE should be giving? Maybe because we find it too complex to use or because we lack the knowledge of the basic tools to execute it; maybe because we think we would appear “brainy” or maybe because we just don’t believe it’s worth the time because top management won’t get it anyway. No matter which of the above you believe is true, as a profession, we should not refuse to see how this opens the door to the “relationship management” dimension which we are looking for.
    On the issue of applicability, the full paper linked in the Stockholm Accords web page provides a couple of examples and also an idea of a dashboard for the application of the communicative equations. There is much work to be done by each organization to apply these ideas to the specific reality, and I do agree with some comments made that the levels of satisfaction are to be considered case by case, but most of all measured in an ongoing logic and not taken as a static measure.

    FInally, in terms of reality checks, I believe reality is on the side of complex dynamics and of an approach to problems which is not deterministic and simplistic. Energy Security being one the fields in which mapping all issues and the nexus between different phenomena are of the utmost importance to understand real life equations.

  6. Bruno, you are of course correct to point out that my comment does not engage the ideas in the post properly. Therefore my remark above, I accept, is merely opinionated. However, I have examined the problems of stakeholder doctrine, Stockholm Accords and the jargon around value networks (E2.0) extensively elsewhere, not to mention on this blog. So my challenge is based on a substantial and consistent critique. I’ve long argued that this approach not only over-complicates everything, but also leads us in the wrong direction.

    But I take your point, so I shall rise to the challenge and explore the ideas in the post above on my own blog in some depth.

  7. This discussion requires a reality check. Apply the methodology in the above post to a real-world PR challenge such as nuclear power or Big Oil and it has about as much relevance and validity as the ancient notion of the ether has to modern day thinking about space, planets, stars and galaxies.

    1. Actually Paul, you couldn’t possibly know but I have used some of these ideas to take a look at the online discourse on those and other topics of conversation.

      We are indeed talking about bleeding edge methodologies but you shouldn’t by any means disregard them without at least looking into the concepts and ideas proposed.

  8. When is the right time to communicate what (your big question) has always been a topical issue for our profession. Nothing new, except that today, if you responsibly consider the collateral effects on others of whatever you decide to say, you cannot imagine that whatever you say to a stakeholder group, and through any channel you select, your best bet is to give for granted that it is likely to be known by others… so the timing issue is more relevant than it ever was. Mistake after mistake still does not seem to have stimulated our body of knowledge to study ‘time’…

  9. I agree with Matome, transparent and effective communication with stakeholders is essential for building and maintaining their trust and confidence and at the same time building mutually beneficial relationships with them. As Steyn and Puth (2004:3) define Public relations as a “management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between the organisation and the publics on whom its success or failure depends”.

    What triggers my mind is that to which extend is this information from the practitioners correct and relevant. As far as i am concern, research in the form of interview is another way in which the organisation get to be transparent and give out certain information about the organisation.

    The question is that ‘to what extend is this type of an error important and considered?’. Do the stakeholders sit back and believe everything they are being told or must they go out there and seek more information?

    Looking at the types of errors that one can come across /encounter during the research process, one would realize that ‘Respondent error’ will always occur whereby the practitioner knows that he/she is being interviewed and can always give out the information about their organisation. And not forgetting that most of the people /practitioners might have big conceerns about social desirability especially when it involves a certain behaviour by an individual e.g. Drugs, Alcohol or Sexual behaviour and in this case one might respond in ways that he/she thinks would please the interviewer or avoid embarrasment.

    The responses from the above mentioned interviews will determine the importance of organisation -stakeholder relationships as perceived by the practitioners. This makes me ask the question of ‘ how important are the organisation – stakeholder relationships?’. And i believe the answer to this question will determine or have an impact on the reputation/image of the organisation. So one has to decide whether he tells lies and loose his/organisation’s image or does he tell the truth and still loose his/organisation’s image.

    I think that every organisation wants to be regarded as a good organisation by encouraging that they build a good reputation for themselves.

    My ‘BIG’ question is ‘when is it the right time to communicate what?’.

    Looking at stakeholder i think it is best to first identify the stakeholders according to their link to the organisation and then categorize them according to attributes; as long as the organisation ensures that it acts as a responsible corporate citizen and is seen like wise and also allow the practitioners to manage these relationships.

  10. Inette, this is a forceful and highly useful contribution to the discussion, and I am very grateful that you shared it with us.
    I need to think carefully before responding to this (and I regret that i don’t always do this).
    In the meantime however I hope others will want to contribute.

    1. Let me begin by stating an organizational, systemic and relational perspective.
      I am fully aware that this is one of the principal biases the critical and postomodernist schools criticize.
      Yet –as much as I agree with them that the societal consequences of public relations have yet to be understood and valued (or disvalued)- I remain of the opinion that if public relations proves to be useful in supporting and nurturing responsible behaviours (not only comunicative) by public, social and private organizations, then … we would be in a good position to bridge… whatever cultural divide.

      If I recognize that the stakeholder model of an organization implies that both leadership and management should have in place decision making processes that also (not solely..) consider stakeholder expectations, then it is clear that my first action is to fully under stand what the organization is about (mission?); where it wishes to go in a defined period (vision); what values , behaviours and norms the organization intends to respect in going there (guiding values); what path it intends to follow in order to go from mission to vision (strategy); and, finally, in how many different specific relevant steps over the defined time it intends to operate in order to achieve its vision (tactical objectives).
      Management consultants tend to call this the envisioning process.

      This done (it is not a tremendous effort and in many organizations has become common practice, although one must remember to continuosly update it, mostly the tactical objectives part), if I define that active stakeholders are those groups that are aware of the organization and intend to exercise their stake and influence its decisions (remember both related to the strategy but also, and most importantly, related to each single objective) and that potential stakeholders are those groups that would certainly be interested in exercising their stake, were they made aware of the organization, its strategy and objectives, I certainly need to create my stakeholder map (this would be your action 1, I hope I under stand correctly).
      One more caveat: the organization can only select its potential stakeholders, as its active ones are already such on their own whether the organization recognizes them or not.
      Furthermore, the distinction between active and potential stakeholders is very useful from a relationship management perspective in the sense that while the first group does not require push communication, the second group, at least initially does. And this may have relevant economic consequences and certainly impacts on the formats of content styles.

      Having done this I need to under stand these stakeholders’ positions related to the organization’s strategy as well as (it is better to repeat this) its specific objectives.
      As you say, there are many ways to do this and of course everything depends on the time, the resources, the relevance ( and this would be your action 2).
      Let me add that one must be aware, in performing this part, that the organization, by listening to stakeholder expectations, is already involving its stakeholders in some sort (more or less intense) of dialogue and therefore must be very aware that in many cases the listening part creates more consequences on the quality of relationships than the actual engagement program, once -and if- it has been determined.
      This concept of listening (in my view the most relevant part of any communication process..) is topical.
      My rule of thumb is that you are good at removing yourself from your knowledge and bias in the first phase, then you objectively (as possible) analyse the correlations between your findings and the other findings from other groups, finally you correlate the whole to the organization’s strategy and/or objectives and you interpret these expectations for your management and, if possible and useful, suggest alterations of the internal decision making process.

      If you have your stakeholder map in place and committ to a continued updating of the effort (new groups become more relevant, old groups become less relevant, other groups are not recognized by the organization but often their activities oblige the organization to do so…) the following step, in my view, is to define for each stakeholder group, as well as for the general strategy and its specific objectives, a mid term policy (how and if those expectations modify the decisions before or while thery are being implemented) as well as an active engagement program.

      This can only be done by understanding the group’s expectations and by deciding if these can or cannot be, and how much, integrated into the decision making process of the organization (see above). In order to do this there are three main functions in the organization: top management, the head of the function that mostly deals with a specific stakeholder group, and the stakeholder relationship director. In doing this for each stakeholder group as well as for each tactical objective it becomes clear that the whole organization becomes involved and aware of the relevance of stakeholder relationships.

      In practice I can say that it doesn’t aways help to illustrate the whole process to your colleagues from other function as, as Sean Williams and Judy Gombita would say, you give the impression of being too ‘brainy’.
      But many other management functions have their own processes of which we are not in particolar interested in knowing how they work, as long as the result is what we wish.

      Here too, the important thing is that the stakeholder relationship director (or whatever you like to call her) be aware and acts coherently.
      It works of course only as long as top management is behind you, but –as you say- if you give management the impression that you know what you are talking about, the issue is hot in board agendas and they might give you a shot at trying to implement it.
      Again thank you for sharing and hoping to continue the conversation.

  11. Hi Toni

    This is indeed an interesting topic, specifically with the fact that we are dealing with variables that are in some instances outside of the span of control of any corporate organisation and the amount of influence the Communication Practitioner has before Stakeholder relationships are compromised.

    The idea of tracking stakeholder relationships via networks and interaction is a new idea, for me the key would be the insights gained out of the measure, what actions are in place to counter the feedback or adjust the current scenario and thereafter the continues measurement of improvement or decrease in satisfaction.

    This will differ by organisation (dependant on the sector, being it FMCG, Agriculture est.); before the measures are put into place, there should be a few actions taken to ensure the right measures are in place to drive the right behaviour.
    In my opinion, these are some of the actions that should be take:
    Action 1: Identification of the different stakeholder groups.
    This should involve integral mapping of each stakeholder group and their needs analysis, that is also aligned to the organisations overall strategy.

    Action 2: In-depth analysis of each stakeholder group needs and priorities
    Engaging with the stakeholders, being via social networks, direct communication or focus groups to determine what their need state is and how the organisation should communicate to the required stakeholder. This will also involve the level of communication information and detail of the communication. The priority of the stakeholder group to the organisation aligned to performance of the organisation.

    Action 3: Determine the accountable department/individual to deal with the stakeholder groups
    Can vary by organisation, in my organisation we have different departments dealing with stakeholders, it is determined by the priority of the stakeholder and the influence the stakeholder might have to the organisation at large.

    Action 4: Link the connectors to the different groups.
    How the groups are connected to each other and are there similarities between their needs and objectives.

    Action 5: Determine what the correlation between each of the stakeholder groups is.
    In some instances the Public might not be a priority to the organisation to ensure there is continues feedback and interaction, but the influence the Public might have on for instance the Regulatory Connection might be a priority to the organisation. Example of this is what we just saw in Egypt, the people of the country protested against the leadership and various State Leaders had to take a stand. BP is another example where environmentalists were outraged by the oil spill and the CEO resigned. This may not necessarily be the direct cause of the resignation, but it should be determined what affect the one stakeholder group’s action has on the decisions of another stakeholder group.

    Action 6: Determine external factors that the organisation has limited or no control over that can influence stakeholder opinions and might have an impact on the organisations performance.
    Risk assessment, what can be controlled and what cannot. How does and organisation prepare for it? What are the boundaries and the organisations license to operate that can influence stakeholder relationships.

    Action 7: Strategy development for stakeholder communication and relationship management.
    Detailed strategy for each stakeholder group to ensure both need states are met and is still in line with the organisations overall business objective. Risk management place should also be included in the strategy.

    Action 8: Buy in for top management and enforcement of the strategy.
    Top management needs to see and understand the importance of stakeholder relationship and the continues management of the relationship, that it is not only important when crisis strikes. The value of measurement and the sustainability of the relationship should be presented in the require format – therefore top management should be a stakeholder to the Communication Practitioner?

    Action 9: Key performance indicators (KPI)
    What is an acceptable level of performance, as per João Duarte’s presentation in October 2010, the Communicative Equations Dashboard indicates the level of satisfaction – these levels needs to be determined for each organisation as to where the midpoint for average performance or satisfaction is clustered, as well as if these indicators drop below an acceptable level, where does the stakeholder group fall under the priority table? Is 70% acceptable? Is a 70% acceptance rate in line with the stakeholder’s needs and objectives?

    Action 10: Measurement tools in place
    Here is the discussion as to how it can be measured? A company in the US state they developed a measurement tool with graphs and maps in the aim to simplify the communication process, would be interesting to see.

    Action 11: Monitoring of the Dashboard and corrective action put into place.
    Continues measurement of the KPI’s with accountability to ensure corrective actions are put into place. Assistance from top management is required to drive performance.

    Action 12: Feedback to Top Management.
    How are these measurements interpreted and fed back to Top Management?

    These actions I suggest are some of the key items that continuously come up in the large organisation I work, where stakeholder relationships always existed, but has only in recent years become a hot topic in the boardroom. Do you agree with these actions, what is missing, how would you suggest it is structured to get the most value out? How can the measurement of stakeholder relationships be communicated to Top Management for buy in and how can the results be interpreted to assist decision making? How are the results of tracking interaction between stakeholders structured and moulded in a way that makes sense and adds value?

    David – thank you for the toys, I will definitely play around.

    1. Inette – this 12-step program is a useful addition to the discussion, as Prof. Falconi notes below in far more detail than I can muster. What I’d aver is to contribute the idea that managing stakeholders is a difficult prospect, not least because of the difficulty in reconciling opposing goals. As Paul Seaman loudly proclaims, and often, the concept of symmetry in corporate communications remains rare at best. Organizations don’t want to give up some portion of their objectives if they can possibly help it. But that’s largely off topic to this post. The hope, still, is to find a more objective means of discovering and identifying influence, and that’s what the network analysts are hoping to muster up.
      Sean (@commammo)

  12. Thank you Tony for your post.
    In my opinion too, network analysis is a very important tool for public relations. It may change our mind about scientific value of public relations. Using network analysis you can establish a tight link between theory and experimental data. Employing software, you can predict results of your communication actions, and you can be able to adjust your actions measuring outputs. In other words, network analysis brings us a theoretical model of stakeholder relationship. This model is an experimental model, like those Galileo Galilei performed. We are able to think thought experiments, like Galileo did.
    By simulating the network, we can add links, nodes, augment degrees node or we can vary their betweenees… We are able to study the possible network evolution in order to improve our future actions on it.
    Moreover, every network is a mathematical matrix. In mathematical science, you can modify the matrix values using matrix operator (or other matrixes). I see in this matrix language the possibility to build an axiomatic system of public relations. In this system every pr action is a matrix (or an operator); every stakeholder is a vector (or a matrix) and so on.
    Science Fiction? Maybe, but I believe that a Pr axiomatic system is an interesting challenge. Eighty years ago quantum physic, a new science, was rewritten in an axiomatic way. Maybe, this time is arrived for Pr.

  13. Intriguing thoughts my friend.

    My personal opinion is that the term transparency is overhyped and lends itself to every possible crime.
    It is like a linus cover to feel warm.
    David Ogilvy once said about corporate advertising that it ‘is like peeing in your pants…nobody notices but you feel warm inside’.
    To me transparency has the same feeling (excuse David’s machoism, but decades have passed since he said it..).

    The gatekeeping role of public relations is one of the five or six myths related to our profession that has been shattered in these last two decades.
    Amongst the others are ‘control’, ‘privacy’, ‘monopoly of knowledge’….

    If you instead use the term responsibility, there is no doubt in my mind that both board members and functional managers have a direct responsibility to their stakeholders that leads them to take decisions that are in the best interest of the organization and a balanced interest of the organization’s stakeholders and societal interests.
    This, in my view, is what sustainability is all about: of the organization, of stakeholders, of society.
    Of course the equilibrium is always difficult and this is why managers and board members are so well paid. It’s their responsibility.

    I hope to have helped clarify your points and, at least, my position.

    1. Ha! I have a very specific view of transparency which is explained here As you say, it is not a catch -all activity and does need specific understanding of what it really means.
      I am very suspicious of activities that suggest a Radical Transparency approach. There is a role for privacy.

      1. David I agree with you. Privacy has a place, but it is not an alibi for us as it is often intepreted. thanks for the clarification.

  14. Toni, Principle 8.5 in the King III report states that transparent and effective communication with stakeholders is essential for building and maintaining their trust and confidence. In my opinion transparency is important for maintaining a good reputation in any organisation and what do you say to organisations that are obliged to comply with the King III report but still use the gate-keeping theory (management and control of information/cutting and deciding which messages goes through to the stakeholders)? Is this an ethical problem within the organisation, abuse of power or is it a strategy to save the organisation’s reputation? Also in relation to Principle 8.1 which states that the board should appreciate that stakeholder perceptions affect the company‘s reputation, it can be assumed that even if the board appreciates the stakeholders’ perception of the company, should organisations then be completely transparent to the stakeholders in the name of ethics while damaging their reputation to building trust, confidence and to sustain the relation? Should the gate-keeping theory be applied in every organisation or does this eliminate the element of transparency all together?

    Please share your views…

  15. Toni, as always pushing the boundaries and very interesting it is too.

    Perhaps the time has come to share some of the research tools that Bruno and I have been using.
    One of the problems we face is having available technologies for academics to allow us to experiment .

    Over the years I have developed a number of programmes to help give us insights into values expressed in discourse.

    The methodologies used, extract semantic concepts from web based text. In this way, one can identify common semantic concepts (aka values) as between actors.

    The first experiments in this direction are available for academic and practitioner alike (there is a health warning, these are the technical experiments on a journey to perfect the technical methodology and over time we have enhanced the capability of this development).

    We have been working on Latent Semantic Indexing for nearly a decade but now we are looking at a range of other ways the semantic web can offer practitioners insights.

    This is an experiment that dynamically identifies an ontology. The objective here will be to allow the practitioner to drill down further and further to find out who is affected and involved with an entity in a web page (e.g. news story). You can try it out for yourself her

    Finding Semantic Concepts

    This tool was used to discover relationships between people and organisations in a big research project. You can enter a lot of website URL’s into it and it will return the 50 most significant semantic concepts in the corpora.

    I find it is more manageable if you remove the URL’s from the results and then paste the words into a programme like TagCrowd to generate a semantic word map.

    You can use this software from here

    Value Systems Analysis

    This software levers the semantic analysis of pages and looks at bigger corpora. In this case current Google News, Blogs and natural search. The analysis shows values in bold in the texts.

    The software was developed as a series of developments for academic research. In this case the software was part of the development for building the values theory in PR. The outcome was presented at theBled symposium in 2009: You can have a go here

    Web Page Text Analysis

    One of the hard things to do is to re-construct web pages to extract the text and then find the sematic concepts and much more. This tool is really clever because it shows the steps involved. You can extract the text on web pages with this tool too.

    While you have been using a focus group approach, I have been using a technological approach. What we both find is that values are the drivers of relationships. The values that come from semantics are derived agnostically (with little or no human intervention). This means that one needs a bigger corpus to get true results but there is less contagion from human prejudice.

    I hope everyone has fun with the toys.

  16. Ai! This makes my brain work very hard. In the Learned Sr. Falconi’s world, João Duarte holds a key to the question of influence:

    “We can mention the thorough identification of the connectors, which bridge inside and outside:

    * degree of relationship of each specific stakeholder {echoing my questions about using the Grunig/Hon relationship methodology…}
    * the measurement of specific stakeholders’ closeness centrality (degree to which a specific stakeholder is close to the other stakeholders) {see Brad Rawlins’s work on stakeholder prioritization} or
    * ‘between-ness’ centrality (how often a specific stakeholder acts as intermediary in a relationship of any other two stakeholders…) {This is new for me == kind of a retweet measure that looks at the second stage of retweeting…if your follower is retweeted…}

    I think this post needs more work == more of a perspective broadened by looking across silos and situations… Hm. An academic pursuit, perhaps, but one that has rich possibilities.

    The role of connectors is a very important issue == it echoes the two-stage flow model, landing squarely in the mass comm theory. It also suggests that direct appeal to internal constituencies might yield fruit in terms of enlisted advocates for the organization…. Very interesting indeed!

    Sean Williams
    Sean Williams

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