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Jerry Seinfeld is my absolute favorite comedian. He makes me laugh – out loud. I have seen him perform several times. It is great to be part of an audience who clearly enjoys his humor and presentation as much as I do. And then there’s always that one fan – you know, the one in the upper balcony who starts by shouting “I love you, Jerry!” and then tries to get Jerry to engage in a direct conversation with him (with thousands of others listening in).
This one fan clearly does not understand the difference between being a member of the audience and being a stakeholder.
The ability to distinguish between audiences and stakeholders is critical to successful stakeholder engagement and to reputation management.
Audiences are the receivers of messages. Typically, companies or organizations are “pushing” information out to audiences – disseminating material without the goal of listening in return. A common example is when companies issue news releases. They have information about an event, an acquisition or a policy decision that is important for their audiences to know, but they most likely are not looking for those audiences to weigh in at the time of release – just like Jerry Seinfeld. He is telling us his jokes and humorous observations. He is not intending for – or wanting, I’m pretty sure – those of us in the audience to give him feedback from our auditorium seats. Our job as the audience is to observe the performance, not to participate in it.
Stakeholders, on the other hand, are groups or individuals who are directly impacted by the decisions and actions of an organization or company. And that table can turn – stakeholders can impact an organization with their decisions and actions. They actively participate in an organization’s reputation management. That’s why it is important for organizations to take the time and resources to listen to their stakeholders and understand their expectations. Then, that organization can share back with its stakeholders how its meeting those expectations through its business operations, social impact and financial stability. A dialogue has started. And by engaging with its stakeholders, an organization is in a better position to actively practice reputation management by adapting, preparing or responding if an issue arises or becomes a crisis. In the scenario above, before a company makes a major decision about an event, an acquisition or a policy change – if reputation management is a genuine priority – it has sought and taken into account the input of its stakeholders.
Stakeholders’ perceptions and actions play a crucial role in an organization’s reputation management.