Online Stakeholder Engagement in the Physical Distancing Era

COVID-19 has ramped up the shift toward online stakeholder engagement. As we all adapt to engaging stakeholders online, we can’t lose sight of the fact that everyone is different. Nor should we expect online engagement to be a perfect substitute for in-person meetings.

An online engagement platform can give you a broad overview of stakeholder concerns, but it comes with certain limitations, which we discussed in a previous article. Not all groups will be open to using an online engagement platform, either. Due to the sensitive content of their discussions, External or Corporate Affairs will never rely on a public forum to influence a regulatory decision. They need one-on-one discussions and want to know what their team is saying to Government Relations.

The Borealis team has been working hard to help customers adapt to the current situation and set up workarounds with online engagement tools. But we also know just how difficult it is to reconcile social distancing with building trusted relationships with stakeholders.

In this article, I address this thorny issue and offer some advice that hopefully will be of help to your team.

Weeding through the multitude of tools for engaging stakeholders online

Now that COVID-19 has temporarily taken public hearings and other in-person meetings off the table, we have all turned to a host of digital tools to engage with stakeholders. You’ll probably recognize most of them, although it can be hard to know which one will best serve your purposes:

Online videoconferencing tools

  • Teams
  • WhatsApp
  • Skype
  • Hang Out
  • Whereby
  • Zoom
  • GoToMeeting

Social media platforms

  • Twitter
  • Messenger
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram
  • Facetime

Project and team management tools

  • Asana
  • Monday
  • Slack
  • Workzone
  • Google tools

And of course there are always emails and phone calls. Mail can sometimes still work well as well.

5 Rules for Online Engagement

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) recently published a handy document outlining the 5 keys to digital engagement during COVID-19.

In a nutshell:

1. Keep online engagement activities accessible to all, including vulnerable people and those with disabilities, learning and literacy difficulties or visual impairments. This may require using various communication tools and providing information in different formats.

2. Moderate online discussions to keep communities safe. Be sure to put appropriate channels and procedures in place.

3. Engage meaningfully and with a clear intention to trigger exchanges on specific concrete issues and seek the rationale behind opinions.

4. Use the right stack of tools to plan, engage and measure engagement.

5. Keep the lines of communication open by using a range of online tools, from email and SMS to online engagement sessions and interactive content.

Importance of Maintaining Records of Online Engagement

Maintaining complete and accurate records of all stakeholder engagement activities and communications has always been among best practices in stakeholder management. During a time of crisis, record keeping becomes even more important. Teams exploring their online stakeholder engagement options should not lose sight of the importance of systematically documenting all stakeholder engagement communications so that others in the organization can have real-time access to this information. Proper records are also needed to maintain a reliable corporate memory.

Dedicated stakeholder engagement software will enable you to do just that by centralizing all your engagement activities and data in a single location. A secure cloud-based software offers the added benefit of making this information accessible to all team members while they are working remotely or from home. It can also ensure the privacy of your stakeholder data. Plus, features like Outlook add-in and Smart communications will automate the documentation of your stakeholder communications.

See how the Outlook add-in in Borealis stakeholder software simplifies data management by automatically creating individuals and the communication that will be linked to them.

Tips for Successful Online Engagement

There’s no denying that technology can be a great facilitator for communication. Think screen sharing, whiteboards, recording meetings, etc. But it can also work against you when you least expect it.

Here are some handy tips for creating a positive and productive online engagement experience.


Be prepared
  • Ahead of the call, check out your camera background to see what others will see. Does it reflect the impression you’re trying to make?
  • Do a couple test runs of yourself speaking in front of your webcam to see how you look and sound on-screen.
  • Depending on your situation, you might need to find ways to avoid “working from home” distractions, such as barking dogs, your husband walking by in his pj’s or your kids screaming in the other room.
Have a plan B
  • Technical issues are a part of the online engagement experience. Learn to cope with them, and always have a plan B ready to go in case your chosen digital tool decides not to cooperate.
Use time wisely
  • Provide attendees a brief but useful agenda ahead of the call, along with any related summaries or documents.
  • Keep these documents to the point. Attention spans aren’t at their best right now. If you want your documents to be read, brief is better.
  • Make these documents required reading for attendees pre-call. That way you won’t have to waste time on recaps when you’re together online.
Minimize disruptions
  • Set everyone’s microphone to be on mute by default upon joining the call. This is particularly useful in the case of latecomers.
  • Make it clear at the start of the call that attendees can use the chat tool to ask questions as they come to mind.
  • Be ready to resolve the common “technical” mistakes participants make, such as forgetting to click the join audio button.
Use visuals
  • The goal is to engage attendees to minimize their risk of multitasking. Visuals can go a long way.
  • Set your video settings to ON for all participants when they join the meeting.
  • Share screens or use whiteboards. Let participants use them, too.
  • Look directly at the camera when talking or listening. This will give the impression of eye contact.
Record the call
  • Use the auto-save functions to keep records of the chat discussion and whiteboards. Add these saved files to your stakeholder management platform for complete stakeholder records.
Move things forward
  • Have a tool available to easily create tasks and assign them to team members – either during or immediately after the call – such as Borealis stakeholder engagement software.
  • Some online meeting platforms allow you to send attendees post-call surveys. This can be a great way to understand the sentiment of the meeting.

Source:Dewang Bhargav 

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Online Engagement

Online engagement can be a great complement to face-to-face meetings, and one of your few options during the current COVID-19 crisis. But when it comes to creating meaningful engagement and trusted, productive relationships with stakeholders, online engagement can be a poor substitute.

Be sure to keep the main pitfalls of online engagement in mind:

  • A lack of visual and verbal cues like tone and body language can lead to misinterpretation of comments.
  • The mass outreach of social media can greatly increase the number of grievances – including from non-stakeholders. People expect quick responses on social media, so make sure your team is ready to respond meaningfully to all comments, whether they are relevant or not. There may be many eyes following these exchanges.
  • Despite its many conveniences, online engagement can be surprisingly resource-draining. In addition to always needing to be ready to meaningfully engage, you may have to weed through mountains of irrelevant comments to pinpoint legitimate comments and concerns that merit your close attention.

Be prepared as you shift to taking your stakeholder engagement online

Need help managing stakeholders during COVID-19?

Our team has been helping businesses manage stakeholder relations for 20 years. COVID-19 is not the first crisis we’ve helped our clients overcome, nor will it be the last. Talk to our team to see how we can provide the technological tools, training and support you need to efficiently manage stakeholders – during good times and bad. Or request a demo of our Borealis software.

Get started with
Borealis stakeholder engagement software today!