Stakeholder communications channel strategy

Two of the most substantial change programs I have been fortunate enough to work on over the course of my career couldn’t have been more different from each other. In both cases, the organisation was a multi-billion-dollar company and the scope of each was multinational business transformation. Both programs impacted many thousands of workers and both comprised a suite of projects, each a substantial piece of work in its own right. Both programs were business critical and could bring down the company if they failed.

The first program was substantially more successful than the second.

There are many factors that could be blamed for the comparative failure of the second but, in my opinion, the biggest single cause of the failure was the inability of the program to communicate with the business. This meant that those involved in the day-to-day business did not understand what they needed to do and they got on with their day-to-day work. When they were asked to contribute, their effort was minimal. They did what they were asked and then they went back to work. To get anything done, the program office had to “push” the change into the business. There was no “pull” from the business to embed and own the change.

By comparison, the first program aggressively drove a well-structured communications strategy into the business that gave stakeholders predictability. Predictability of what was going to change, when, and why. When people have the information they need, they are more likely to act in a predictable way and are more likely to be accepting of the outcome, even if it is perceived as negative to them.

Both programs employed traditional communication activities such as town-hall meetings, presentations, email blasts, and monthly newsletters. Equally, both programs employed a group of change champions to represent the program, but with stark differences.

The first program engaged, trained, and deployed a very small group of change champions from the start of the program.

The second program established a very large group of change champions (over one hundred) and only mobilised them two thirds of the way through the program. Joining the program so late meant it was impossible for the change champions to fully grasp the complexity of the project and, as a result, they could not talk fluently about the program. This meant that they had to rely on presentation packs and written prompts. This ensured the delivery of the message was wooden and unengaging. Frequently, they were not able to provide the audience with any further information than what the audience already had. The number of change champions was also an issue. There were so many that they tended to leave it up to each other to communicate with the stakeholders. Naturally, this did not work.

In the first program, the change champion group was purposely designed to be far too small to be able to adequately provide the coverage the program required. Consequently, the change champions were forced to use the stakeholder groups to further promote the message. To this end, the program adopted a leverage model based on a ratio of 1:50.


Every change manager spoke to 50 stakeholders. Those 50 stakeholders spoke to 50 staff. This meant that the 10 change champions spoke to 500 stakeholders who spoke to 25000 staff. This strategy was key in forcing the stakeholders to engage in what was happening. Without their help, the project would fail. The business knew that.

The first program understood that stakeholders generally tend to remain distant and somewhat isolated from the program. To mitigate this issue, every communication included a call to action. The call to action answered the “so what?” questions: Why did you send me the communication? Why should I care, and most importantly, what do you want me to do? The call to action was tailored to the audience. By comparison, the second program adopted a simple communications plan, delivered on a “one shoe fits all” approach in the form of a regular monthly news update that failed to answer the “so what?” questions. Consequently, it completely failed to ask the stakeholders to do anything. There was no call to action and therefore, no action from the business.

Having an effective group of change champions is critical to the success of a change program, but having change champions is not enough. They need to be supported by a highly structured suite of communication activities including:

  • One-to-one presentations
  • One-to-few presentations
  • One-to-many presentations
  • Email
  • Town-hall meetings
  • Theatre
  • Website updates
  • Intranet forums
  • Awareness education
  • Workshops
  • Technical training
  • Posters, brochures, etc.


The delivery of these activities cannot be left to chance. To maximise success, a carefully thought through communications calendar is required. The communications calendar is the tool that establishes the rhythm of conversation between the business and the program office. It ensures that a cohesive suite of messages is sent out to the organisation on a predetermined frequency. It provides the foundation for predictability and dictates what type of message will go out on which day, to which audience, and in what format. In this way, the audience is trained to expect a communication on a given day and agree to take specific actions to support and promote the message to their nominated stakeholders.

In the following example of a change calendar, it can be seen that days 3, 4, and 5 are used to update the senior management group in the organisation. This is done in advance of a general email update which would go out on day 8. The internal newspaper is published on day 12. Up to now, communication has largely been one way. Days 15, 17, and 19 are then set aside for the organisation to ask questions directly to the program office and selected managers. The last week has no communications to minimise the issue of over-communicating.


Establishing a communications rhythm seems simple and straightforward. But achieving this level of sophistication is not easy. First, you need agreement on who the stakeholders are. Then, you need to get those stakeholders to agree to listen to the message and, finally, you need to have their agreement that they will actively support and promote the message. This level of engagement is not achieved by email. If you send an email to a senior executive, there is almost zero chance of them reading it, and even less chance of them taking action as a result of it. But if you show up in their office and talk to them and brief them, they will listen and take action as needed. But to keep the stakeholders engaged, the message needs to continue to evolve. More of the same, or irrelevant information, will quickly turn stakeholders off. This brings us back to the final key difference between the two programs.

The first program completed an effective impact analysis. This resulted in agreement on how the stakeholders would be impacted by the various projects and how the stakeholders could influence the success of the program with their action or inaction, as the case may be.

The second program did not complete an impact analysis and it was left up to the various projects to work amongst themselves to determine the impacted stakeholders and the best way to engage them. This meant that key stakeholder groups were omitted and other stakeholders were engaged multiple times as each project reached out to them. This led to increased levels of confusion and irritation as the stakeholders did not receive a cohesive message.

A well-thought-out impact analysis will tell you what is going to happen when. The analysis typically works on the big picture and describes the project in chunks. The fine detail is seldom known in advance and senior stakeholders are not generally interested in the fine detail. It will be worked out later.

The impact analysis is then married to the change calendar. Now the change champions have something to discuss with the stakeholders. These communications should adopt the traditional model of last period, this period, next period. In this way, the change champion can review what has happened and discuss the success and failure of recent activities with the stakeholders. The stakeholder can be encouraged to support the bedding down of recent project activities, to create an environment where the program office is receiving meaningful feedback. The same applies to the current period. It is a discussion on what is currently happening, why it is happening, and what it means to the stakeholder. It is the time when the change champion can ask for the active support of the stakeholder for current activities. Finally, it is an opportunity to tell the stakeholder what to expect in the near and medium term and what will be expected of them in the future.


Irrespective of the volume, nature, and professionalism of delivery of the communications plan, stakeholders are going to say, “No one told me.” A close cousin to this is the change manager who strenuously argues, “But I told them.” These two scenarios cannot be avoided without active management.

The final piece of the communications puzzle: keeping track of who heard what, and when.

The first program used a common off-the-shelf content management system to track communications. Detailed stakeholder lists were created and the program kept track of which stakeholder saw which presentation and who presented it. Questions raised at these presentations were also tracked. Tracking was extended to include email broadcasts and attendance at online forums.

This detailed level of tracking reinforced to the stakeholders and the change champions that the communications were important and necessary. It kept them front of mind for all. It also improved attendance at all meetings and forums and increased the “read rate” of emails.

By contrast, the second program did not track communications and, as the go-live date drew close, the stakeholders took every opportunity to say, “But nobody told me” and “That won’t work.” Faced with a significant resistance to change, the program was forced to delay.

For communications to work, it is mandatory that there is consistency of the message across all channels. Communications that come from multiple authors are extremely distracting to the reader and it is impossible to harmonise the message. Having a single author ensures the look, style, and language are consistent throughout the messaging. Winston Churchill said,“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.”

On big projects it is difficult to achieve this, as it is frequently left up to the project managers to write their own communications. They also tend to have discretion on when they will communicate with the stakeholders. I consider both situations to be poor practice. Better practice is that the change manager owns the communications. They can work with a specialist writer as required, but this person must work for the change manager. The change manager should work with the project teams to develop a master slide pack. This pack will develop and grow over the course of the project. For each communication period in the communications calendar, the message will be drawn from this slide pack. Certain slides will be constant in every presentation, reinforcing the primary drivers of the program. These will be supported by new program information. Email broadcasts will reflect exactly the same information as will steering committee updates. Consistency creates momentum and momentum creates change.

The difference between the two programs highlights the fact that effective communication is not an art. It is a management discipline. If a business wants a change program to be effective, then there is no substitute for a consistent, integrated, carefully prepared and executed communications plan. After all, as Voltaire said, “To hold a pen is to be at war.”


Consultants and other business advisors are frequently brought in by senior management to establish and lead a change program within the business. This brings to mind an old joke. How many consultants does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but the light bulb has to want to change. An old joke for sure, but it reinforces the inescapable truth that a consultant cannot change a business. Only the business can change the business. If the business does not want to change, then there is nothing the consultant can do.

But who is the business? The business is a collection of people working together to achieve a common objective. For change to be successful, these same people need to band together to build a momentum for change that cannot be stopped. The organisation must push over the tipping point to make change inevitable.

The problem is that, in large organisations, whilst most staff support the overall business objectives, they don’t necessarily agree on the best way to achieve them. A characteristic of large organisations is the proliferation of subcultures throughout the business. These subcultures are normally aligned to the different stakeholder communities or silos that make up the business. Depending on the specifics of each subculture, change will be met with a range of mindsets. Some will say, “I have been here fifteen years and I’ve seen it all before. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.” Others will say, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” And still others will say, “We welcome the opportunity to change.”

For change to be successful, these individual communities need to be recognised, understood, and engaged as stakeholders in the change program. The trick is identifying each different stakeholder community and determining how change will individually and collectively impact each community and how each will respond to the proposed changes.

This paper will not discuss in detail how to identify individual stakeholder groups. Rather, it will examine how to evaluate the impact of a change program on stakeholder groups and how these same groups can impact the change program.

It is common practice to start an impact analysis with a stakeholder identification exercise, the rationale being that once you know who the stakeholders are, you can evaluate the impact change will have on them. My experience is that an effective stakeholder impact analysis must start with an analysis of the impact of change on the business. After all, how can you be confident that you have identified the complete and correct set of stakeholders, never mind the impact of change on these stakeholders, until you have fully understood the impact change will have on the business as a whole?

I have found that while most change practitioners agree with the above, they also frequently attempt to complete both analyses at the same time. Inevitably, this will deliver a skewed and incomplete result. It is important to complete the studies sequentially.

To understand the business impact, it is easiest to use the traditional variables of people, process, and technology, with the addition of foundation items such as culture, strategy, policy, and rules. Collectively, these variables will provide the necessary width to complete a suitably comprehensive business impact analysis.

The objective of the study is to agree what will be different in the business as a result of the change. The following framework can assist.

Business impact table

The table is a summary of the impact of change on the business.

You will note that the framework breaks the headers of people, process, technology into their component parts. It is the component parts that are analysed, not the header itself.

A key part of any change program is effective communication in order to ensure senior managers understand the need for change. To be successful, it is vital that a senior stakeholder is able to quickly assimilate and understand the issues. It is not uncommon for an overly detailed analysis to be put in the “too hard basket,” causing the findings to be partially ignored or even lost entirely.

If the table is detailed, it can be supplemented with Harvey Balls to provide a quick summary of the extent of the change.

Dark (red) indicates a high degree of change.

Business impact table withHB

Using the Harvey Balls as a guide, it can be seen that the proposed changes will have a moderate impact on the business processes and a high impact on people, management practice, structure, and culture. There will be limited impact on strategy, policy, and business rules.

This summary is highly significant, as the common practice in business improvement programs is to map the business processes. In this case, understanding the business processes may be important, but it is not where the real game is. Rather, a strong focus on people and culture is more likely to deliver the desired business benefits. The detail in each cell describes the nature of the change.

Depending on its size, a change program will comprise multiple projects or work streams, each focusing on a different aspect of change such as Quality, HR, IT, or operational improvements.

The framework can be used for each project within the program. As before, Harvey Balls can be used to indicate the magnitude of the change within each project.

consolidated business impact table withHB

This type of analysis will provide a manager with a ready snapshot of the impact of each project’s specific changes on the business. While this view is valuable, it is incomplete.

What is required is a consolidated picture of change across all projects.

Project summary unclassified

The table provides a consolidated and immediate insight into how the projects will individually and collectively impact the business. You will note that the subcategories of “people” have been removed. This is to support the principle of “easy to understand.” Senior stakeholders will want to know how much change will impact their people. The fine detail is unlikely to be important at this time.

In the example, project 3 is anticipated to have the biggest impact across the entire business, and management practice, access to information, and culture will be most heavily impacted across all projects.

Project summary

This table now becomes the basis for determining the real stakeholder groups. Given that process flows are not a top three priority, it is unlikely that the process operators are going to be a primary stakeholder. Conversely, their managers are identified as a primary stakeholder. This is reinforced when you consider management’s impact on culture and access to information.

With this insight, that change program can set its priorities and tailor the messaging appropriately.

To understand how the change program will impact a specific stakeholder group requires the application of a consistent numerical scale. Such a scale could be:

  1. No impact
  2. Low impact
  3. Moderate impact
  4. High impact
  5. Maximum impact

Each stakeholder group is then evaluated according to this scale and the results are tabulated as follows. The stakeholders are listed down the page. The types of change the stakeholders will go through are listed across the top of the table. Once again the variables of people, process, and Technology are used to guide the analysis. It is unlikely that the detail will be a mirror of the business impact table, but is expected that the business impact table will inform the variables used in this study.

Stakeholder summary table

The table is completed once the totals column is complete. To really make sense of the table, graph it and rank it from highest impact to lowest.  It is clear that the first six stakeholder groups will be most impacted by the program and the last four stakeholder groups will be least impacted.

The primary difference between the stakeholders on the left hand side of the graph and those on the right is that those on the left will typically be operational staff and those on the right will be senior managers and executives. The seniority of these managers means that they are unlikely to be substantially impacted by the technical aspects of the change program.

stakeholder graph with circles

This type of stakeholder analysis is common practice and in the normal course of events, the change program would target the top six with specific interventions and deal with the bottom four with general interventions. The stakeholders in between would gradually move from specific to general.

By general activity, I refer to interventions aimed at groups, rather than individuals. It would be brilliant if a company had the time and resources to work with each person in the company individually. This luxury is seldom, if ever, open to large companies and so change is addressed with general activities.

My critique is that this is a one-way study, in that it only evaluates how the change program impacts the stakeholders.

In my opinion, a far more critical analysis is an evaluation of how the same set of stakeholders could impact the success of the change program through their actions, be they positive or negative, or simply through inaction.

The point of this second study is to determine which individual stakeholder groups could substantially impact the success of the project if they wanted to. Consider: if the executive team chose to, they could terminate a specific project or even the entire program, a particularly substantial impact. If the service desk became disenchanted, they could reduce the quality of the customer service they provide. This would dilute all the good work done on the rest of the project. It would not stop the project, but it would have a detrimental effect on customer satisfaction.

To complete this study, the scoring can again be on a simple low to high scale, as the evaluation is more subjective than objective.

  1. No impact
  2. Low impact
  3. Medium impact
  4. High impact

When completing the analysis to determine how stakeholders could impact the change program, it is important to use the same stakeholders that were evaluated in the first study.

Stakeholder impact on project

As before, the scores are graphed. It is important that the stakeholder sequence is kept constant as per the first graph.

reverse stakeholder graph

It can be seen that, unlike the initial study that produced a smooth graph, this study produces a saw-toothed result, indicating that there are stakeholders across the full spectrum that can significantly impact the project.

Of particular interest are the stakeholders on the right. In the first graph these stakeholders were scored very low as they were deemed to be senior or executive managers and therefore largely unaffected by the technical aspects of change. But in this second graph, they have a very high score as they have the position and power to substantially impact the project.

The full strength of the analysis is evident when the two graphs are compared.

stakeholder graph comparison

As expected, there is a strong two-way impact across the first four stakeholder groups. These are the primary stakeholders impacted by the project and, if the change program does not fully enlist them in the change program, then it will be almost impossible to achieve sustainable business improvements.

Equally, when looking only at the first graph, it is unlikely that stakeholder groups 8 and 9 would have been considered particularly important stakeholder groups. But when combined with the second graph, they become high priority stakeholders.

The first graph is an analysis of the technical aspects of the change program. It evaluates which stakeholders will be impacted by the change and the data behind the graph will tell you why they are impacted. In many respects, change will happen to these stakeholders whether they want it or not. This does not diminish the responsibility of the change manager to minimize their resistance to change as much as possible.

By comparison, the second graph reflects the political aspects of the change. While these stakeholders may or may not be directly impacted by the technical changes, they will be acutely aware of how the change program could impact the business financially and their own reputations within the business and the market place. These two considerations make them a particularly important set of stakeholders. This is particularly true as you move towards the right. The change manager needs to work very closely with these stakeholders as they are not directly impacted by the change program, “whether they want it or not” and can choose their own level of involvement.

This dual analysis is of critical importance when it comes to communicating with each stakeholder group. The primary stakeholders in the first analysis will need to be sold on how important the change program is to the business and how important they are to its success. At the other extreme are the priority stakeholders identified in the second analysis. As per the first group, these stakeholders will also need to be convinced that the change program is strategically important to the business. But they will also need to be convinced that the business improvement program is being well managed and that it is unlikely to have a detrimental impact on the reputation, operations or finances of the business. If any of these tests fail, then the program runs into the very real risk of being cancelled.

There is a further relationship between the two graphs. The senior stakeholders on the right will frequently have the organisational position and authority to instruct the stakeholders on the left. This makes these senior stakeholders even more important when it comes to designing the initial communications and prioritizing which stakeholders need to be engaged with first.

There is one other stakeholder group that needs to be considered as part of the impact analysis, namely the business improvement team. This is the group of people who are working full-time or close to it on delivering the business improvement project. They may or may not be part of the program office and frequently this team will be a blend of full-time employees and contractor staff.

For me, this is one of the most important stakeholder groups on the project. This team is a catalyst for change in the sense that they create change, but are not themselves changed. They are also a temporary group, constituted for the life of the program. For these reasons, they are seldom, if ever, evaluated as part of the impact study.

A key responsibility of this team is executing an effective communications strategy. They will decide on what messaging is communicated to which stakeholder group, on what frequency and format. The importance of getting this strategy right cannot be underestimated as it will directly influence how the business perceives the change program.

It is therefore vital that the health and competence of the team is measured and managed. If this team becomes disillusioned or suffers from poor morale, the consequences for the success of the program would be significant. Equally if this team does not have a common understanding of the objectives of the program or how the various projects fit together, then they will be prone to delivering mixed messages to the business and undermining the very change they are trying to create.