Eight success factors for virtual stakeholder dialogues


Success Factors

These factors serve as an orientation for conducting a successful virtual stakeholder dialogue.


1. Strategy and goals – it’s a match!

  • Is a stakeholder dialogue the right format to achieve your goals? If yes, choose between a virtual or a face-to-face dialogue. Note that a stakeholder dialogue can be a multi-stakeholder format, but it can also be a bilateral conversation. Stakeholder dialogues should always have a purpose and are not just an end in themselves.
     

2. Technology is the key!

  • Make sure that the online technology used is stable and easy to use, even for participants who are less tech-savvy. Technical shortcomings lead to frustration.
  •  Invest in quality. Although virtual dialogs offer potential for saving resources, efforts should be made to create high-quality formats (invest in equipment, training, and service providers).
     

3. Get the timing right!

  • Keep online meetings short and focused. More frequent appointments are possible – but only consider this if the goals require it. The virtual format must also be integrated into the daily work routine. Whether in the morning, during lunchtime, or in the early evening depends on the stakeholders involved and their routines.
     

4. Know your stakeholders!

  • Virtual dialogs should be conducted with stakeholders with whom initial points of contact already exist. It works better if you have already met in person.
  • Consider aspects such as digital literacy. The overriding goal is not to overwhelm the invitees or put them in uncomfortable situations. Small group sizes are suitable for a fruitful exchange.

 


5. No stakeholder dialogue without moderation!

  • Check whether you have internal moderators available or whether the format is provided by an external expert (can be beneficial if you want to focus on controversial topics). It is also more difficult to virtually moderate because the formats are shorter and it is difficult to capture the attention span, engagement, and mood of participants via video.
  • The moderator must ensure that the schedule is followed and that all participants have a chance to speak. Ideally, several people can share the role or assist the moderator.
     

6. Engage your participants for fruitful discussions!

  • Remember that the virtual space does not have the same dynamics as offline formats for e. g. the moderator needs to provide input to get a discussion going. Stimulate the discussion with thought-provoking questions, address participants directly, or use the built-in quick polls. It can also be beneficial to set rules in advance.


7. Respect the time and intentions of your participants!

  • Participation in stakeholder dialogues is voluntary. In the virtual space, there are no additional incentives such as personal gatherings, the social program, or catering. This makes it even more important to value the participation of the stakeholders. An exciting program, participant-friendly scheduling, and professional organization should therefore be standard. It can also help to express your appreciation to participants by sending an attendee kit in advance.


8. Create situations to feel trusted!

  • While the virtual does not provide a ‘protected space’, care should still be taken to ensure that participants feel as safe as possible.
  • Check if privacy and data protection of your technology is in line with the demands of all participants.
  • Work on confidentiality within in the group. Participants should agree that no information will be made public.
  • Increase familiarity by asking all participants to turn on their camera, it will help to create mutual trust.
     

 

 

» The use of virtual dialogues can be helpful for companies and their stakeholders – especially when it comes to asking opinions or managing expectations. However, when it comes to trust, relationship management or emotionally sensitive topics, virtual dialogue should only be used when it is appropriate.
With all the possibilities offered by technology, empathy is still crucial for communicators. And I think that's a very important aspect that we must never forget. «

  • Anne Katrin Wehrmann-Scherle, Vice President Public Relation at B. Braun Melsungen AG

Practical advice on whether participants should turn their camera on or off

  • Video conferencing is an important component of virtual stakeholder dialogues. If the participants can be seen via camera, commitment may increase.
     
  • Likewise, greater attention can be expected as potentially fewer things are done in parallel.
     
  • The moderator should therefore encourage participants to turn on their camera. This works particularly well if the appointment is designed to be interactive with few participants and if there is a basis of trust.
     
  • Tip: Set a good example and ensure visual equality. Professional backgrounds or studio recordings can be intimidating for other participants.
     
  • Participants without cameras should also be respected. Plus, there are also advantages. No camera means a smaller burden for participants. Some people may be more relaxed because of the anonymity and there is less distraction from the multitude of video clips.
     
  • Even without a camera, virtual stakeholder dialogues can be successful. For example, if the focus is on conveying information or if there is a large group of participants.

 

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.