Virtual stakeholder dialogues – advantages and disadvantages


Definition of virtual stakeholder dialogues

A virtual stakeholder dialogue is a symmetrically designed communication format for personal, confidential, and issue-centered exchange between an organization and (critical) stakeholders on problems of various origins supported by digital technologies in which all or some participants are not in the same place. They usually take place synchronously, although asynchronous elements are conceivable.

Typical objectives are to achieve a mutual understanding of perspectives, interests, positions, and facts. Based on this, virtual stakeholder dialogues can also be used to achieve more advanced goals such as collaborative problem solving or participation. Nevertheless, all participants are usually capable actors who can use the platform to persuade, build coalitions and pursue individual goals.

 

 

 

»Virtual stakeholder dialogues are a great opportunity for us. How we'll find the balance between virtual formats and the classics, such as Breakfast with the Board, will depend on how we want to achieve our goal from a communications point of view.
With the virtual format, we have new instruments in our toolbox.
Now it's a matter of orchestrating them optimally in the overall concept of the communications work, just as we did in the past.
This is an exciting challenge, and overall an opportunity.«

  • Christian Engel, Head of Newsroom and Spokesperson for infrastructure topics at Fraport

 

SWOT-Analyses

While planning and executing a virtual stakeholder dialogue, communicators must balance strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats of this format.

Strenghts and weaknesses:

Opportunities and Threats:

Many factors such as calculability, a non-binding nature, or the duration and frequency of virtual formats can be both opportunities and threats. 

Map - Hintergrundbild

Many factors such as calculability, a non-binding nature, or the duration and frequency of virtual formats can be both opportunities and threats. Which side of the coin is visible, in turn, depends on

     

  • the implementation of the format
  • the objectives of the dialogue,
  • the stakeholders involved, and
  • the company or the project behind the format.
  •  



When to use a virtual format:

  • When regular exchange takes place
    Many companies have often established personal relationships, know each other's interests, and work toward common goals with their key stakeholders.
    --> Here, virtual formats are a good option since they can be integrated easily into the daily life and work of stakeholders and company representatives. The efficiency and effectiveness of these dialogues can be increased if the meetings are shorter but take place more frequently.
     
  • When stakeholders cannot be reached
    Residents or stakeholders are not always on site or willing to participate in dialogues in person. NGO representatives and politicians for e. g. are sometimes in such high demand that they cannot attend every event.
    --> This is where virtual stakeholder dialogue can help – especially when dialogues are strategically important to companies but not high on the priority list for participants.
     
  • When it comes to niche topics
    In some areas, the issues are so specific that researchers and activists need to be spoken to. These people tend to be busy, in demand and scattered around the world – getting them around the table is nearly impossible.
    --> Virtual formats have shown that experts from around the world can be easily connected in this way.


     

 

 

 

» I believe we will not completely return to the old paradigm. In many areas, there is a need for personal interaction again. So, we will certainly maintain a hybrid world. In the long run, many things will also be digital or hybrid. «

  • André Wetzig ist Leiter der Abteilung Kommunikation und Politik bei VNG

Key findings of the study

  • Stakeholder dialogues can be virtualized in three ways:
    1. as a virtual look-alike (the virtual stakeholder dialogue is a clone of an existing format);
    2. as a virtual extension (the existing format takes place in an online setting and is extended by opportunities of virtualization);
    3. as a virtual standalone (the virtual dialogue is a communication format for exchanging ideas with stakeholders that was not used before).
     
  • Virtual solutions offer various advantages and disadvantages.
    Advantages include scalability, independence of place and time, and the low entry barriers for participants. On the other hand, virtual communication can lack the personal nuances that in-person formats often provide. There is no ‘protected space’ and less dialogue takes place.
     
  • To implement stakeholder dialogues successfully, eight factors were identified: the alignment with strategy and goals, the purposeful use of technology and optimal timing, knowledge about needs and demands of participants, rigorous preparation of the moderation, the activation of all stakeholders, the demonstration of appreciation and respect as a host, as well as paying attention to privacy and confidentiality.
     
  • Virtual formats will continue to be a practical alternative for in-person dialogues in the future. The key to this is that stakeholder dialogues always follow a goal and purpose.

 

Methodology

The study was directed and conducted by Daniel Ziegele, Hannah Kurtze and Ansgar Zerfass at Leipzig University. As part of the project, an extensive literature review and numerous interviews were conducted:

  1. Literature review of both academic literature and practitioner manuals on the topics of stakeholder dialogues and virtualization.
     
  2. Expert interviews: A qualitative empirical study was designed to identify communicators’ experiences with virtual stakeholder dialogues, the challenges, and what requirements result from them. Two major groups of experts were interviewed:
    – companies and organizations who conduct stakeholder dialogues and 
    – consultancies who support companies in this field.

Thirty-nine interviews with experts in the field of stakeholder dialogue from thirty-five German corporations, consultancies, and service providers were conducted between April and May 2021.

Research background

Is it possible to conduct stakeholder dialogues virtually? 
This was a question often asked when discussing the results of the Communications Trend Radar 2021, a research project recently completed by the Academic Society for Management & Communication. The study describes five key trends from society, management and technology that will influence corporate communications in the near future. The virtualization of communications was one of them. 

 

Research team

  • Ansgar Zerfass is Professor and Chair in Strategic Communication at the Institute of Communication and Media Studies at the Leipzig University.
     
  • Daniel Ziegele, M.A., is a research associate at the chair for Strategic Communication at the Leipzig University. 
     
  • Hannah Kurtze, B.A., is a research associate at the chair for Strategic Communication at the Leipzig University.