Stakeholder messaging strategy

Best practice states that before you begin a business improvement program you will have a detailed business case that clearly describes the endgame and what is required to get there.

The importance of being clear on the endgame cannot be overstated as it provides the bedrock for a successful change program. It becomes the foundation for all messaging and provides the criteria against which the change program is shaped, delivered, and measured. It also defines the hand-over criteria to business as usual.

When there is a clear endgame in place, the role of a change program is simply to establish a schedule of work that will deliver the endgame whilst bringing the organisation along on the journey.

Sounds straightforward, but in practice it is incredibly difficult. A core component to getting this right is ensuring there is alignment and consistency of message across all channels. This is a “must” from day zero of the program. Experience shows that there is a direct correlation between the number of stakeholders that agree on the endgame and the duration of the change program and, by extension, the size of the budget overrun. The lower the number, the bigger the budget overrun.

Getting the wider group of stakeholders to understand and support the endgame requires both a communications strategy and a separate messaging strategy. The communications strategy primarily describes the channels the change program will use to communicate with the stakeholders and the messaging strategy defines what the change program will tell them and when. While these two strategies go hand in hand, it is important that they are treated as different things. Blending them into one tends to be at the expense of the messaging strategy, whereas the messaging strategy should inform the communications strategy.

The biggest threat to the success of a business improvement program is stakeholder apathy. Getting the “business” to do something—make a decision, sign something off, host a get-together—is frequently very difficult. This is because, in the main, stakeholders are comfortable—they have their daily/weekly routines and habits and it is extremely difficult to get a stakeholder to change their behaviour. “Sure there is a change program on the go, but don’t ask me to change. The business needs to change. I don’t need to change.” This is where the importance of getting the messaging right cannot be overstated.

Stakeholders forget that the business is only a collection of people working for a common purpose. The business doesn’t behave. People behave. For the business to be different, people’s behaviour needs to be different.

Effective messaging will assist each stakeholder to move through their own resistance to change and reach the key step of “Understanding” in the least amount of time.

Resistance to change (2)

a person starts to understand why things are as they are, then their objection to the proposed changes starts to decline and their acceptance of the new order grows. Eventually they take ownership of the change and become enlisted in the new direction.

To get stakeholders to be open to changing their behaviour, the change program needs to “turn up” either the “pleasure” or the “pain” threshold in the business. “Pleasure” means making the future look so attractive everybody wants it. “Pain” requires painting a very bleak future for the business if it doesn’t change. Working in the middle of these two parameters is unlikely to yield much success.

Moving the organisation to either end requires understanding from the stakeholders. They need to get it. This is why effective messaging is so critical to the success of the change program. Achieving a critical mass of understanding requires actively talking to the stakeholders in their language. For the best effect, the change program needs to treat the messaging strategy as a propaganda program. All communications need to hang together and they need to be aligned to the endgame. The objective is to cause many people to all see things the same way and for them to become willing to adjust their behaviour as required. Relying on individual project managers to choose what to say about their part of the program, and when to say it, substantially increases the likelihood of leaving the stakeholders under or misinformed about the program.

The following table is a practical means of capturing the high-level messaging strategy. Using broad language, it maps the current behavior by stakeholder group to the required behavior and the associated messaging.

The table assumes the change program is an acquisition. The company is being bought.

Stakeholder messaging and behaviour

The key takeout from the table is that the messages used to sell the project are expected to be different by stakeholder group, but the outbound message, for all stakeholder groups to use when discussing the change program, needs to be consistent.

Consider political parties running for elections. The last thing they need is to confuse the electorate, and on a daily basis the party will issue talking points. This ensures that each politician says essentially the same thing, but from the angle of their portfolio. It doesn’t matter what question they are asked. The politician will trot out some verbiage that bridges from the question to the talking points and then repeats the talking points.

I am not suggesting that the change program adopt the same level of deflection as politicians. But the principle is sound. The change manager needs to work with the stakeholders to ensure they all use the same phrases and messages when describing the change program. As the program matures, the phrases will change and evolve to reflect the new status.

There is a reference to “call to action” in the table. It is there to ensure that the call to action is not forgotten. The call to action is the specific things the change program requires from the stakeholder. It’s remarkable how many communications I see that seek action from the stakeholders or wider community, without actually asking for it. And then the change agent complains that they are being ignored.

It is expected that the call to action will be designed to deliver the desired behavioural changes from each stakeholder group. An effective filter for evaluating a message is to ask, “So what? What do I want the reader/participant to do as a result of receiving the message? Does the message ask them to do that?” In my view, there is always a call to action. Sometimes the action will be quite passive such as the classic “keep calm and carry on.” At other times, it will be a request for active participation such as “log in and check your details.” Always indicate to the stakeholder whether the message requires “noting,” “a decision,” or “discussion.” This will help define the call to action.

It is relatively straightforward to establish effective communication channels between the change program and the business, but it is incredibly difficult to get stakeholders to understand what is meant by a specific message. It is remarkable how people will interpret what was supposed to be a straightforward communication.

What you heard is not what I said, and

What I said is not what I want and

What I want is not what I need.

Same time next week then…

The average stakeholder in a large business is a highly competent professional manager, but when it comes to change they are at best, a part-timer. This means that they speak a different language, see the world through different frameworks, and have a completely different set of priorities when it comes to what’s important for the business. By different language, I mean that manufacturing staff speak Manufacturing, IT staff speak IT, finance staff speak Finance and change practitioners speak the language of Change. It is incumbent on the change practitioner to learn the languages of the stakeholders and talk to them in those languages.

A different language is a different vision of life. Federico Fellini 

For example, when discussing the change program with the financial manager, framing the benefits in terms of how the balance sheet will be improved and which items in the profit and loss statement will be impacted, will likely hold their attention. India uses a different scale when it comes to currency. Indians are comfortable with lakh and crore and Europeans are comfortable with thousands and millions. Two people could be saying exactly the same thing, both speaking English, but in a different language when it comes to numbers. It would not help much if the numbers were written down, as the comma is placed differently in each scale. Without careful attention to detail, a misunderstanding on which are the important numbers could be created very quickly.

I note that one of the most important communication channels, and one that is frequently undervalued, is the hierarchy of meetings within an organisation. There is no one better to put the change message in context for their subordinates than their manager. As noted, a manufacturing manager will speak in manufacturing terms and examples.

It doesn’t matter who the audience is, when it comes to messaging, there are a few universal rules that apply.

  • Value is more important than cost. Going cheap is more likely to damage the image of the change program and could cost substantially more in the long run.
  • Use graphs, charts, tables, and diagrams. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
  • Be succinct. Use short sharp sentences. This takes time and effort. It is not practical to prepare communications at the last moment. In the words of Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
  • Repetition works. Use repetition in the same communication and across multiple communications and channels.
  • Write to the individual, not the group.
  • Use sentences or words that indicate willingness by the change program to engage in a larger dialogue with the stakeholders.
  • Select the right channel. Just because there are many communication channels available to the change program does not mean the program needs to use them all, all the time. Blanketing stakeholders with messages can be counterproductive. They just turn off.
  • Exposure does not equal engagement. Just because a million people might watch a show on TV doesn’t mean that the same million people will watch the advertising at halftime. Or in business terms, just because the change program does an email blast, or publishes a newspaper, does not mean the communication will be read.

In summary, write in a way that makes stakeholders want to engage with the message and want to participate in the change program. Stakeholders will naturally spread a message that resonates with them, and just as quickly ignore those that don’t.

As a tail piece to this article, the following is a simple framework that helps to ensure the channel strategy and message strategy are kept separate, but remain related. The key is working out the message summary. Once you know what you want to say per program phase, it becomes easier to complete the rest of the framework. The framework can be modified to suit your needs.

Messaging strategy

Invariably, change programs are sold with three word slogans such as “Transition, Transform, Extend” or “Stabilise, Consolidate, Transform” or similar. The following graphic shows how this principle is used with the above framework.

three stage messaging strategy

The reference to risk is important. It captures risks such as getting the message wrong, the message going public, what happens if the message is misinterpreted, and what happens if the message is not received at all. The author always knows what they intended to say. Asking a third party to review the message in a cold reading will quickly determine whether what was intended to be the message is the actual message conveyed.

What you heard is not what I said, and

What I said is not what I want and

What I want is not what I need.

Same time next week then…

In a holistic approach, these risks should be in the risk register and have mitigations associated with them. The channel strategy should then be refined to help mitigate the risk. For example, some messages are best delivered verbally to ensure a document cannot be leaked to the press. Other documents could be delivered to a restricted audience with a caution for confidentiality.