How to Grow Authentic Relationships by Bojinka Bishop, M.S.

In a hushed voice, a conversation specialist at a major U.S. water utility recently told me, “We can’t possibly let the public know everything we’re doing.”

Of course, an organization’s stakeholders don’t need to know everything. But there’s a fear he’s expressing that reveals his company’s culture, and culture determines how organizations treat their stakeholders.

In his and in some other companies, corporate communication can be more about gatekeeping and managing the story — often based on a fear of its public knowing too much.

Today, stakeholders — meaning anyone related to an organization, including its customers, vendors, employees, shareholders and community members — want more than just information or carefully curated stories. They want relationships, and good relationships cannot be build on fear. I’ve often argued that authentic communication is the best way to build long-term trust and social capital. After all, public relations and communications are people-oriented businesses.

Employing socially responsible communication

In response to issues the public cares about, many organizations modify their business practices and then tell stories about the changes they’ve made. For example, as people have grown more concerned about the environment, companies from Starbucks to Go Green Flooring (the name says it all) have sought to make their business practices more environmentally friendly, and they have communicated those stories widely.

Now we’ve gone a step further, to what I call socially responsible communication, which means treating people with respect when we communicate with them. In their 2013 book, “Conscious Capitalism,” Whole Foods founder John Mackey and co-author Raj Sisodia wrote that “stakeholder integration,” or treating all stakeholders as insiders, is crucial for good business. Organizations should be caring, the authors argue.

In my article, titled “When the Truth Isn’t Enough: Authenticity in Public Relations,” I wrote that authenticity comprises 10 components, one of which is caring. At the time, I worried the description might sound too soft. But almost 20 years later, the idea has gone mainstream. By taking a caring, respectful approach, organizations can dissipate fear on both sides, leading to better relationships and more successful businesses.

Taking proactive steps

Respectful relationships require two-way communication, and that doesn’t mean just conducting a few surveys or focus groups, or providing an email address where people can send feedback so that a communication strategy can then be developed.

Many companies carry out two-way communication and participatory activities under the umbrella of community relations. For instance, McDonald’s has even changed its locations and architecture to accommodate neighborhood needs. Mining companies often seek community input before disrupting small, and in many cases indigenous, communities. It’s time for this mutual approach to become part of the public relations function.

Whenever a stakeholder group will be negatively affected by a company’s plans, its communicators and executives should take proactive steps to ensure meaningful two-way communication will take place. For the communication to be meaningful, the company must be willing to make adjustments in response to stakeholder feedback. Simply selling the public on the changes that will occur doesn’t cut it anymore. Management needs to understand that communication is also about listening.

Building bridges

With our publics becoming more vocal, companies that impinge upon their rights in any way should not fear potential conflict or try to divert public attention with positive stories. Instead, companies should encourage stakeholders to engage in two-way dialogues that let their voices be heard.

That means expanding the role of public relations and corporate communications. Promoting stakeholder involvement also requires that C-suite commits to a policy on socially responsible communication and engagement. The policy should include a commitment to understand stakeholder values, to let them know before any decisions are made that might cause them harm, and to consult with them on possible solutions. A policy for socially responsible communication also requires a company to act with integrity and to engage with stakeholders in a responsive and caring manner.

It might sound like a tall order, but many cities follow these principles as well. In fact, the National Civic League, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1894 to advance civic engagement and create equitable, thriving communities, even gives awards for it.

Sandi Seader, assistant manager of Longmont, Colo., a recipient of an NCL All American City Award, frames it this way.

“Our promise to the community is that we will involve them meaningfully in decisions that affect their lives,” Seader tells me. “This is not easy work, but we find that the more we engage with our community, the more trust and social capital we create. That is what communities are all about.”

If these cities can work to overcome fear and build bridges with their stakeholders, then certainly companies can, too. It takes more work than just telling a good story, but the rewards of trust and enhanced social capital more than justify the effort.