Friday, July 16, 2010

Not everything is engagement

That's the thing about some words. The kind of sneak into daily use and then they become so widely used that their unique, valuable meaning is diluted and ultimately, lost. So it can be with "engagement". The particular type of engagement I refer to is "Stakeholder Engagement" as reported in CSR Reports. In listing stakeholders and the type of stakeholder engagement a Company undertakes, there are a number of common genericitis-infected statements which weaken the true contribution of the essence of "Stakeholder Engagement" in corporate reponsibility processes. Stakeholder Engagement is a focused, often structured approach to dialogue with stakeholders or stakeholder groups in order to ascertain stakeholders' concerns and aspirations relative to a particular business. It is a dialogue about corporate responsibility and the role of a particular business in society. It should be an insghtful, open exchange of views, needs, concerns, potential solutions and expectations. It is not any form of interaction or communication that happens to take place in the normal course of doing business.

Bill Baue of Sea Change Media and Marcy Murningham of Harvard Kennedy School  wrote a paper on the use of Web 2.0 Technology for enhancing Stakeholder Engagement  - well worth reading if you didn't catch it when it was published a couple of months ago. You can also catch the interactive stakeholder engagement session video from the GRI conference   where Bill Baue presents this paper. Whatever method you select to engage with your stakeholders, however, the reporting of this engagement is also important to drive credibility in your sustainability programs and reports.

Here is what Stakeholder Engagement is not:

Irish Life and Permanent plc 2009 CR Report, under the heading "types of engagement"
Engagement with Suppliers
: Our Group Procurement department meets suppliers in the normal course of business to agree contracts for supply of goods and services.
Engagement with the media : Media relations and enquiries are handled by our media relations management consultancy firm.

Hess Corporation 2009 Corporate Sustainability Report, under the heading "types of engagement"
Engagement with suppliers: Local content and mentoring programs, contract discussions and negotiations, trade shows and conferences, business to business communications.
Engagment with industry associates : Trade and professional association activities, benchmarking.

Volvo Sustainability Report 2009 under the heading "Stakeholder Dialogues"
Employees and trade unions: We all communicate with each other during daily work but also in formalized forums such as personal development plan discussions and yearly attitude surveys. All employees can pose questions directly to the Group’s CEO via the intranet. For top-down communication we often practice cascading from manager to manager. There are also other channels for information from the company to the employees such as: the intranet, in-house magazines, team meetings, films. Internally, we communicate in many different languages. We believe that open dialogue contributes to improvements.
Suppliers: The Volvo Group works closely with suppliers. We value long-term relationships and the transfer of knowledge and understanding of each other’s processes, procedures and values. Forums for formal communication are our supplier portal, training sessions, dedicated supplier days and awards.

And here is what Stakeholder Engagement  is :

Exxon Mobil 2009 Corporate Citizenship Report provides 2 pages on stakeholder engagement  with specific examples of engagement events around Corporate Responsibility issues, such as this example on page 10.

Nexen provide details of how they engage with different stakeholder groups: in their 2009 Sustainability Report as in the following example:
Engagement with NGO's : We work with NGOs through a number of formal and informal channels. These include multistakeholder groups such as the Canadian Boreal Initiative and our own Expert/Stakeholder Advisory Group. We also meet with NGOs one-on-one to address specific issues or concerns.

Coca Cola Enterprises include 5 full pages on Stakeholder Engagement describilng the detailed activities of interaction and dialogue with core stakeholder groups and the outcomes of such interactions in their CRS Report for 2009, providing comprehensive background against this overview:

LG Electronics 2009 Sustainability Report includes a very detailed section on Stakeholder Feedback linkiing to a materiality analysis, and also report verbatim responses from external members of stakeholder consultation discussions. Very interesting!

And I cannot finish up this set of positive examples without a look at Vodafone 2010 CR Report. Vodafone has led the pack consistently, in my view, on stakeholder engagement and provides depth of data and inforrmation across a range of stakeholder groups including this example from their German operation:

Stakeholder engagement is the ultimate proof of a credible and embedded approach to sustaianbliity. Companies who do not have the interest, courage, time or inclination to engage with stakeholders are not completely committed to sustainability principles. Assuming that you know what stakeholders think is not sustainable. It has to be a focused and specific series of actions. I believe comprehensive coverage of well planned and executed stakeholder engagement processes adds more credibility to a Company's reporting than an Assurance Statement, and untimately, of course, provides significant added value to the business.

elaine cohen is a CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter and Ice Cream Addict. She is co-founder  of Beyond Business, an inspired social and environmental consulting and reporting firm. Visit our website at


James Osborne said...

Hi Elaine,

Thanks for pointing this out. I quite agree with what you say. And this is typical of many companies' approach to reporting where non-pertinent information gets thrown in with the aim of saying as much as possible about all CSR issues.

But I wonder if there is a grey area here for companies such as those operating in the energy or resource industries, where it's hard to distinguish between "ordinary business relations" and "responsibility". What about routine meetings with regulators (for example, about the safety of deep offshore oil drilling)? Business as usual or a critical question of responsibility?

Thanks for your thoughts.

(Lundquist Srl)

Unknown said...


Thanks for this intelligent research. I am starting to wonder if we in CSR and Sustainability can create story boards that counteract the press and media's reports that disempower the possibility of change.

Your analysis with other people in our network I believe is helping to embed education as part of the culture of the journalism, I have spoken about on a regular basis.

And described here:

From #ceres10 to #sustain now - Road Map to Sustainability - A New Stage of Sustainable Journalism
May 10, 2010

Your initial post on stakeholder engagement also led me to describe what is missing and used another post of yours to define a future for stakeholder engagement.

WorkEcology Insight Note 061410 - #safechem Stakeholder Engagement
Jun 14, 2010

I now believe we should start course for the new media in how to spark this kind of engagement, so less money is invested to fuel the pace of fury that the press creates as an obstacle to real education that can result in the change we need for ESG.

שירלי קנטור שני said...

This is a very important post, Elaine.
I can see the "engagement wash" just around the corner. Whenever a new buzz word gets into the mainstream business jargon, the danger of using it without actually understanding or practicing it becomes present.
Thanks for sharing.

elaine said...

Hi James, thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, of course there is a grey area, you are absolutely right. some regular business interactions could be considered "engagement" if the go beyond the normal course of business transaction and cover more strategic sustainability issues. In this context, though, stakeholder engagement means engagement on sustainability issues, in my view. Which is more than just serving customers well, or maintaining great relations with regulators or others.
warm regards, elaine

elaine said...

Hi Lavinia, thanks for your comment and for being such an avid reader and commenter on this blog. As usual, your insights are facinating. Education as part of the culture of journalism is an interesting point. Warm regards, elaine

elaine said...

Shirley, hi, yes, engagement-wash, cause-wash, green-wash ... you are right ... it's all part of the same syndrome. We have to keep reminding ourselves of the real meaning and intention of things. Thanks for a great insight, warm regards, elaine

Bill Baue said...


First off, thanks so much for the shout-out on our Accountability Web report. You link to the exec summary, so for folks wanting to read the whole report, here's the link:

And this is a VERY helpful post, both in terms of questioning the language we use to describe our work (and the shortcomings when a powerful concept such as stakeholder engagement gets diluted from overuse / misuse.)

Perhaps the most important part of this post is the examples you cite, both negative and, particularly, positive. Your knowledge of sustainability reports continues to amaze me, and educates me on best practices.


Bill Baue
Principal | The Transition Group
Editor in Chief |

elaine said...

Hi Bill, thanks so much for your comments. Glad you enjoyed the post! Warm regards, elaine

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