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 organization.com
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:
- external or
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:
- accelerate or
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.
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.
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.
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.)