Selecting stakeholder groups for effective communication in the 21st-Century

As an employee relations (or internal communication) professional, how do you specifically identify your stakeholders?

What approach and methods do you adopt and how do you implement them appropriately in order to communicate clearly?

A guest interview and conversation between

Toni Muzi Falconi and Rachel Miller

Recently Toni Muzi Falconi approached PR Conversations about some of his current examinations regarding alternative approaches to communicating with stakeholders. It was determined the most effective method to understand and communicate his research would be an interview format and conversation, conceived by internal communication specialist (and recent guest poster), Rachel Miller.

Rachel Miller (RM): Toni, I’m interested to learn more about what you are currently working on.

Toni Muzi Falconi (TMF): Rachel, I am evaluating possible alternative approaches for employee relations professionals to better understand and communicate more effectively with their primary stakeholders.

In this quest I am also hoping to identify a “generic” professional worldview that is adoptable/adaptable to an effective governance of relationships with other stakeholders, such as suppliers, investors, distributors, media, public policy decision makers, et al.

RM: This sounds quite interesting; I’m intrigued about what approaches you are exploring?

TMF: I’m examining how to separate stakeholders into as many groups as possible, using sense-making indicators (to find out more, I point to Karl Weick as a real asset).

The idea is to be able to ensure that content may be adapted to satisfy and attract expectations of (and dialogue from) specific groups.

The other areas I’ve been thinking about is how we could improve results? This means identifying and examining an ever-growing list of flexible tools and channels. And these must be selectively applied on the basis of different variables—which inevitably will change in time.

RM: What separations/groups would you expect to see?

TMF: Traditional separations, such as blue-collar and white-collar employees, managers, etc., are of course necessary.

But these separations don’t tend to be particularly useful if you are attempting to involve them on general culture-related issues, such as their motivation, participation and satisfaction in the workplace.

RM: Do you have a way to segment those individual groups?

TMF: Adopting a consolidated market segmentation approach and adapting it to that public is useful. However, too many adaptations are necessary not to justify at least looking for a different approach.

RM: What is your recommendation for a different approach?

TMF: The growing body of knowledge concerning the digital influencing issue is helpful. This is also because it confirms, for the most part, that long-existing public relations approaches to stakeholder identification can shed much light on internal, as well as external, publics.

Specific studies (and many applications) related to concepts such as “niches,” “tribes” or “clusters” are also there to help.

RM: So what is at the heart of your current and original research on stakeholder communication?

TMF: This has been my thought process—if you think about employees, they own the following profiles:

  • personal
  • professional
  • *territorial
*territorial includes the history, culture, values and norms that relate to living in a specific territory rather than another

In parallel, organizations also own at least two profiles:

  • corporate
  • sector

Once one recognizes ownership of several profiles, the natural thought progression is that likely it’s a lost cause to develop a “generic” approach to communication; instead, it’s more useful to spend more time focusing on “specific” (situational) ones.

RM: Does this mean because employees have more than one profile, they could therefore be in multiple segments?

TMF: Yes, in an abstract and theoretical operating “space,” a given employee populace of a given organization could be “divided” into at least the five “profiles” as listed above.

Each of which, obviously, intersects with each other , too. Then, according to the specific objective that the employee relations professional wishes to achieve, the related contents and available tools and channels may be differently mixed and deployed in each situation.

RM: That’s an interesting idea, so segmenting your communication based on which profile they come under?

TMF: Yes. This is not—as some might think—an “easy way out,” as it would imply the use of professional skills and competencies that are not normally in the communication practitioner’s domain. Areas (clusters) that would need to be mapped and listened to include:

  • dominant organizational culture (with its subcultures and anti-cultures); and
  • sectorial or industry cultures

And of course the:

  • legal
  • political
  • economic
  • socio-cultural
  • active citizenship; and
  • media characteristics

of a given territory.

It would also mean the mapping and understanding of personal and professional profiles and creating content related to the specific objective one is trying to achieve.

That would then need to be adapted to each one of those clusters, plus selecting the more appropriate tools and channels to do this—it’s one hell of a task!

Unless, of course, this “generic situational approach” (an oxymoron?) becomes the basic method adopted for each program.

RM: How do you see this working in practice for employee relations professionals?

TMF: I am not at all sure of where I am going with this as it remains in the exploratory stage. That’s why I would really welcome comments, suggestions, advice from you, Rachel, as well as from other readers of PR Conversations.

Having said this, I imagine that—faced with one clear and specific change management project (to take a common example)—the employee communicator is well versed with the organization’s sector and corporate cultures and focuses on these mission and values. That is, inasmuch as they impact on the specific objective being pursued.

The communicator then identifies the employee populace involved in the specific objective (the universe, in this case) and listens to their objective-related opinions and expectations, integrating these findings into the personal, professional and territorial profiles.

This knowledge, in turn, creates an overall communicative infrastructure that allows a flexible adaptation of multiple contents releasable through an ever-growing list of tools and channels selected on the basis of priority indicators. For example, interactivity, flexibility, time impact, credibility, reach and so on.

RM: Thank you for the invitation for my input, Toni.

It’s certainly true that communicators are well versed in segmenting communication in order to achieve organizational objectives.

My take on your suggested approach is that there would be many benefits to sub-dividing employees and tailoring communication with them, based on the variables you’ve previously mentioned.

However, my concern would be how to accurately categorize employees. And maybe even more importantly, “keep track” of any changes in sector, geography, etc.

If it added a huge amount of consideration and analytical challenges for communication professionals, I wonder how many would have the inclination or time? Inclination, I think, would certainly be there as any good communication practitioner worth her or his salt wants the very best for employees when it comes to creating effective conversations and business communication, but perhaps resource-wise (time or money) less so.

It’s certainly food for thought.

And as someone who has studied Weick’s sense-making ideas, it appeals to me. Weick’s notion of sense-making—literally making sense of what we see and hear—has a role to play here. For example, frame of reference communications. In this example, employees are presented with information in a manner that they recognize (framework) that makes sense based on their understanding (e.g., cues), and leads to effective communication (e.g., a connection).

Weick’s idea is that once people begin to act they generate outcomes in some context, and this helps them discover what is occurring, what needs to be explained and what should be done next. In short, a good story. Sense-making is about plausibility, coherence and reasonableness. It’s well known that employees will only “take things in” if they have a cue/receptor.

Taking this thinking a step further, I think the profiles you’ve mentioned have a role to play here and I can see this segmentation working.

TMF: Clearly my suggested approach implies for the employee communicator to invest more thought and time in preparing a program before implementing it. It is natural that a professional be inclined to apply methods that have always been used rather than opt for a different path.

However, rationality would suggest that a more “reflective” approach is needed today—because employee communication has become so relevant.

Besides, the recent (2010) collective global effort by the Global Alliance to define the need for an essential alignment of internal and external communication of an organization (I am referring to the Stockholm Accords) also indicates:

For the communicative organization, internal communication is vital in the development and sustenance of the organization, fostering trust, commitment, purpose and shared goals among all internal stakeholders including all employee tiers, contractors, consultants, suppliers, volunteers and others required to fulfill the organization’s purpose.

And this certainly mandates a more sophisticated and aware approach.

RM: But how do you know when the groups are satisfied?

What measurement would need to be put in place?

TMF: The ultimate objective, in my view, is not to satisfy the (however) identified groups, but to achieve the organization’s objectives.

From this premise, the employee communicator assumes that reducing frustrations and resistance in the workforce and stimulating ideas, motivation and participation, improves the chances of achieving the specified objective. The evaluation methodology I suggest is that, once the universe and the specific groups are identified (see former question), the quality of existing relationships and contents be pre-tested, with samples from each group. The quality testing would be on the basis of:

  • trust
  • satisfaction
  • commitment
  • power balance or control mutuality

for the relationship.

As well as:

  • credibility of source
  • credibility of content; and
  • familiarity of content

for the communication quality.

Such a pre-test allows one to set and share with top management specific relationship and communication objectives to be achieved in a given timeframe with given resources.

A post-test, following the implementation of the program, will give you a good idea of where you went wrong in the process.

Also, this method allows the communicator to negotiate in advance of the actual implementation; for example, a well-deserved bonus if and when the results exceed the negotiated objectives.

I have been adopting this (constantly updated and flexible) methodology for many PR projects over the last 20 years and have always been gratified.

RM: Toni, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

I quite like the idea of a pre- and post-test measurement. From reading back on our conversation about your new area of study, what stands out to me is that people working within employee communication need to be flexible, and adapt and evolve the way they work in order to meet the ever-changing needs of both their employees and employers’ objectives. I wonder what other readers think?

Do let Toni know your views in the comments section.

* * *


Rachel Miller is an internal communication and social media strategist based in London. She began her career as a journalist and has worked in internal communication (IC), both in-house and agency side, for global companies across the financial, automotive, healthcare and railway sectors.

She regularly speaks, writes and teaches internal communication and social media. Rachel (under her maiden name, Allen) was named in PR Week UK’s Top 29 under 29 professional communicators. She contributed a chapter to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ best-selling book Share This: The social media handbook for PR Professionals (Wiley). The follow-up Share This Too (Wiley, due out summer 2013), also features a chapter by Rachel. She writes a monthly column on using social media for internal communication on Windmill Networking and in 2012 launched The IC Crowd. Read her blog and find Rachel on TwitterLinkedInPinterestStorify and Google+.

* * *

Toni Muzi FalconiToni Muzi Falconi is senior counsel of Methodos in Milano, an Italian management consultancy specializing in performance, change and integrated management practices. His primary residence is in Rome, where he teaches public relations at the Vatican’s LUMSA University. Twice a year he also resides in New York City, where he teaches Global Relations and Intercultural Communication as well as Public Affairs courses in NYU’s Master’s in Public Relations and Corporate Communication.

A past president of Ferpi (the Italian PR association), founding chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (GA), he developed Toni’s Blog in 2005, which was then transformed into PR Conversations in 2007. Check out the GA’s Stockholm Accords HUB blog (where Toni was the principal contributor), follow him on Twitter or contact him by email.


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13 Replies to “Selecting stakeholder groups for effective communication in the 21st-Century

  1. Have been off line for a couple of days.. aplogise for delayed response.

    Heather, your entimologist analogy is good.

    Personally I prefer the one with the analyst.

    Back in 2005 in Trieste the Global Alliance held a great (for me the most enriching of all..) World PR forum dedicated to the issue ‘communicating for diversity, with diversity, in diversity’: if I am not mistaken this was the first time 600 PR professionals and scholars from all over the world discussed this issue for three days. The Journal of Communication Management published the proceedings in a special report and, as far as I know, there are none left. But I have one if someone is interested.

    Behind this was the idea that one with one communication is the most effective, that each person is diverse from the other and that today it is at least theoretically possible to do it.
    Amongst our most gifted lecturers was Prof. Rovatti (Italian philosopher) the only authentic interpreter of Basaglia’s listening practice (Basaglia was Europe’s greatest analyst in the 50’s and 60’s and was the prime advocate of the Italian Legge Basaglia, a norm that closed existing mental institutions).

    We all learned then how to listen:

    a) get out of yourself and your knowledge;
    b) collect all that you can of the other you are listening to, in his/her words and signs;
    c) obtain from your interlocutor agreement on assembled sequence and interrelationships;
    d) return into you knowledge and yourself; e) interpret and check again.

    No wonder, Basaglia ended up committing suicide….

    Please believe me if I say that after three or four times you have done this, it comes almost natural and I really wish this type of listening processes (there are of course many others available) were taught in our programs for public relations education recognizing or, rather grudgingly admitting, once and for all, that listening today is more than 50% of any effective public relations process.

    Also ethnography is a relevant competence that one must have in our profession and I repeatedly insist with my colleagues and students that territorial, corporate and sectorial cultures are essential ingredients of any public relations activity.

    I believe in the concept of territorial public relations infrastructure because it gives one the idea that we are not only involved in fluff: and culture has a very big role in this.

    But now I fully accept and empathise with Sean’s concern for the term culture.

    It’s very much, as you say, like strategy, and I always ask my students to refrain from using it telling them that when they go to the bathroom they are convinced of going for ‘ a strategic pee’….

    I will now adopt the same for culture (actually, a cultural pee is even more evocative…). Thanks Sean.

    By the way Sean, Dilbert is my favourite amongst all public relations critics. Even more than David Mckie, Derina Holtzhausen or Jacquie L’Etang. As much as I admire and love the three, Dilbert really its the nail most of time….

    Cheers, will now be spending the weekend mulling about what to vote in Italian political elections, uncertain on whether the plug should be pulled putting an end to the coma, or whether therapeutic obstinacy is useful in any way….

  2. Holy Moly – there’s so much to digest here…

    1. The audience segmentation model indeed needs to get deeper. This has been a focus of my practice since, well, before its inception. Dr. Brad Rawlins’ ( work on stakeholder prioritization ( focused on external publics, but the relevance to internal constituencies is quite clear.

    2. The cultural dynamics will be a very difficult path to tread. Organizations frequently cast their cultures as aspirational; the current state often is less positive and therefore less desirable for organizations to explore and discuss. Self-identification or some sort of cultural assessment might be revealing, though old practical me wonders if it could be done quickly and at reasonable cost.

    3. Agree that exploring the strength and health of organization/employee relationships will be essential — Again, however, the need to use surveys to get a read on that leads to some issues of time and expense. It would be very useful to measure not only the self-assessment, but the differences between that and perceptions of other relationships…

    Finally, flexibility and adaptability are urgent requirements for IC pros. One really hard thing is the value assessment of the function — how many things are we doing that add no appreciable value to the organization, when we could be enacting a more research-based, more strategic set of tactics that lead to better results across the business…

    Thanks Toni and Rach for an enlightening eavesdropping…

    1. Thank you Sean, there was lots of food for thought and I keep reflecting on the conversation.

      Couldn’t agree more re: the urgency of assessing the requirements for IC pros and examining what can be changed/removed. All too often you see more tools added into the mix without due care and attention given to whether it’s time to remove one. Leads to a saturation of messages and channels.

      Thanks for having your say,


    2. Sean,
      thank you for your enlightening comment.
      I do hope that when you say ‘there is so much to digest’ this implies that you will come back for more comments and suggestions… and not that there is too much junk….

      There is no NYU student of mine since 2006 that has not studied the Brad Rawlins paper as must-read. I learned much from it and sadly did not cite.. I guess because I consider that knowledge fully engrained in mine…
      Another excellent source, and I say this because I vividly remember him discussing at length with Brad in Bled some years ago, is our PRC portuguese star Joao Duarte with his double profile of scholar (just discussed his dissertation in Lisbon on ‘conciliating public relations and management through the stakeholder theory’.. a real treat) and senior professional… after some years in internal communication with Enel’s Maria Cristina Romano, one of the recent Melbourne PR Forum stars, and now looking after that global company’s worldwide issues management.

      2. Old practical you is,of course, right but I believe that an intelligent and specifically related integration of Page Society’s Building Beliefs work and Anne Gregory’s challenging first part of the Melbourne Mandate (defining an organizations character and values) can be extremely helpful for the employee communicator.

      By the way, and only to add more meat to the discussion, Rachel asked me a final question on a non directly relted issue that I am happy to add here:
      she asked:
      How would employees feel about being segmented in this way?
      and I replied:
      This question brings up a huge can of worms in terms of professionals analysing, studying, interviewing other individuals, writing about them and deciding on how, when and if they are making an impact on employees’ day to day lives. Is this ‘politically correct’ today? Any group of organizational stakeholders falls under this question.
      When we speak of transparency, at least in public relations, it is about who I am, who I represent, what my objective is and how I plan to get there. Any interlocutor should be made aware and have access to such info before we interview, study, categorize or cluster or segment….


      1. Toni – thanks for the post and agree lots to digest, and come back to, here. A couple of immediate thoughts which in part relate to the final question that wasn’t asked. I often feel that IC seems to view employees a bit like an entomologist views insects. Hence, that idea of studying ‘them’ does present both ethical but also conceptual issues. I prefer the idea expressed by Cutlip et al that ‘effective public relations starts with listening’ and Covey’s principle: ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’ by ’empathetic listening’. Rather than researching employees as psychological subjects, shouldn’t IC be advocating methodologies that are primarily about listening and understanding those with whom we seek to communicate and engage? Perhaps then, management (and IC practitioners) can also come to understand themselves and their role better.

        My second thought is about public relations and ethnography in respect of understanding cultural phenomena. Not sure if you’ve looked at this perspective on organisational culture, but there is an emerging body of literature around ethnography and PR which might be useful to consider. The paper by Everett and Johnston: Toward an ethnographic imperative in public relations research, in Public Relations Review from November 2012 is one that comes to mind.

        1. Hi Heather, I am interested by your comments, particularly around the Everett and Johnston research you mention, am going to seek out a copy.

          I think you’re right, internal communication professionals have a wealth of information and research to hand to help, however, you can’t beat actually working alongside and with employees to understand them better (and not in an ‘under the microscope’ way). Which then leads to an informed approach to IC based on findings – and ways to be understood. Is a fascinating topic and one I’m keen to constantly develop my thinking on, Rachel

      2. Toni – indeed, much wheat to glean and not merely chaff! The methods by which we seek to understand (Heather’s demand for listening) prior to merely Sending Out Stuff have been applied in distinctly haphazard fashion. I might claim that many organizations have an anti-intellectual bias in their internal communications, a lack of desire to listen for fear of discovering a need for change. I recall one person telling my, among his/her reason for avoiding employee surveys, that the organization had no intention of acting upon their intelligence, so “what’s the point?” A former boss said, “employees are smart” — a distinctly unpopular sentiment to this day.

        The second item that inhibits listening is the concept that culture is warm and fuzzy. I’m acquainted with one organization where the top leader says, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and means it. The others see culture as an intangible “something” that is subject to manipulation from above, rather than a state emerging from below. Hence my comment about aspirational cultures — making statements as regard the desired state as though that state was in place rather than in some future.

        Heather’s got a great line: “I often feel that IC seems to view employees a bit like an entomologist views insects.” Would that were so! See my first item above, but my own experience indicates that IC pros often are so lumbered with minutia and fol-de-rol that they cannot possibly study their employees. Instead, they leap from (frequently manufactured) crisis to crisis, satisfying the whims of the loud, unable to pause for breath, let alone systems thinking.

        There also is the problem of executives who don’t understand communication as a business process, seeing IC instead as Dilbert’s boss once said: “Teamwork is a lot of people doing what I say.”

        1. Thanks Sean and Rachel,

          My reference to entomology was meant to suggest the idea that IC practitioners (and senior management as Sean so rightly identifies) often seem to see employees as a separate species. Love Rachel’s extension of the metaphor with ‘under the microscope’ in respect of any research. Could I go further and connect the idea to the Dilbert boss, with the notion of crushing any feedback under foot?

          Sean – I know many organisations now employ ethnography to study consumer behaviour at a cost of thousands. Do you think this could help demonstrate that culture is not something fluffy, but worth investing in expert research to obtain insight of strategic value? And totally agree that culture can “eat strategy for breakfast” (great phrase).

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