Welcome back, dear Friend! In the previous training, we talked about stakeholders and stakeholder analysis that we need to conduct in order to identify whom should we work with and how. The output of that stakeholder analysis was stakeholder register, which is a document that lists all possible stakeholders, their needs, interests, attitude, and positions in relation to our targeted forest ecosystem. Now, equipped with the stakeholder register, we can proceed further to interacting with our stakeholders and engaging them into our forest management planning.
However, if we have not engaged our stakeholders in the planning process before, then it is likely that they do not know about us and about what we propose for sustainable forest management. So, we may need to communicate with them, to inform them about our proposal and generally about what changes it brings to each of these stakeholders. We may also need to educate them on the concept of ecosystem services and the value of the forest for their economic and social wellbeing. Now, educated with this information and having this knowledge about ecosystem services in the forest and the benefits these services bring to each of them, the stakeholders are more willing and accepting to receive us and to listen to our proposal.
But here we have a challenge. We generate a lot of complex scientific information, especially in the economic valuation research. How can we communicate all this complex and sometimes confusing information to our stakeholders, such as farmers, logging companies, ministries, and so on. How can we translate scientific language into layman’s language, so that our message is well received? Also, what channels should we use to convey our message in transparent, understandable, and action-prompting manner?
Certainly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges. Every project, proposal, and team may use different channels and approaches to communicate with its stakeholders. However, we can agree on some general principles of communication and education. So, here are, let’s say, the big five principles of communicating with our stakeholders and educating them.
Figure 1. The Big Five general principles of effective stakeholder communication.
The first principle of effective stakeholder communication states that we should focus our messages on specific stakeholders and adapt them to their needs and specifics. In this case, we should consider attitude, behaviour, interests, and levels of power and influence of each stakeholder to tailor our message directly to them. As you may understand, this is where our stakeholder register is very valuable, as it gives us all the information, all the specifics for each of the stakeholders, so that we could prepare messages to each one of them.
For example, if we present our proposal for sustainable forest management and generally educate people about ecosystem services in the forest, and we do it with local farmers and residents of a local village, we may stress the importance of the forest as a source of pollination service, non-timber products that people could gather there, and, let’s say, possibilities for development of eco-tourism and additional profit for helping out eco-tourists to wander around the forest. However, if we go to state officials and governmental representatives, then we may shift focus of our message and direct their attention to long-term economic and social development of the region around the forest, which is possible due to healthy ecosystem services in that forest.
The second principle is very clear: we need to make everything clear and attractive to our audience. In our economic valuation research, we may have willingness-to-pay data, complex graphs with confidence intervals, and so on and so forth. However, this will not gain us understanding and willingness to cooperate from our audience. What we need to do is to translate all this scientific information into commonly used language and to convert our scientific knowledge into common layman’s language, attractive infographics, and clearly understandable comparisons.
For instance, when making a point about the value of standing trees in a forest, we may consider giving our stakeholders a waterfall of scientific data from the field of biology, ecology, environmental science, and so on. However, we may change the perspective and compare those trees with thousands of air conditioners to make a point about the microclimate regulation ecosystem service, or fields of water plants that these trees actually replace by doing the water purification service, or, for example, kilograms of medicines as an illustration of the health improvement service and disease prevention service that this forest allows us to have. Generally, this comparison is very good in that people easily understand the benefits they get from a well-preserved forest and are more likely to support our proposal for sustainable forest management.
The third principle of effective stakeholder communication is about communication channels. We should use different channels to approach different stakeholders. However, we should also think, which channels are suitable for which stakeholders and how each of them is used by those stakeholders. For example, some people are easily reachable through e-mail, social networks, and other on-line channels. But for other people, other stakeholders, direct meetings and live conversation should be the things to do in order to engage them and to talk with them directly about the value of our forest.
I have a very good example of this work with communication channels. In The Codru Quest research, we had to collect information from different users of the Codru forest. For city residents, for example, we used mainly on-line communication channels in order to attract them to our on-line survey, so that they could complete it and give us the information we required. So, we used e-mails, newsletters, and social network engagement to reach those stakeholders. However, we knew that if we want to gain information from village residents living around the Codru forest, we would fail if we use on-line channels, because those people do not have access to internet and even to a computer. So, we sent out our colleagues and researchers, who visited random houses and random families in the Lozova village and interviewed the respondents, the stakeholders directly there. This allowed us to gain information from both: the city users going to the forest for recreation and the village users, who benefit from the forest ecosystem services, such as pollination, non-timber forest products for food, and timber for fuel and heating.
Now, going to the fourth principle of effective stakeholder communication… What do you think it is about? What would you suggest us to do in order to communicate with our stakeholders effectively? So, yes, the fourth principle states that messages should go both ways: from us to our targeted audience and from the audience to us in form of feedback, comments, information, recommendations, and so on. Because it is likely that our stakeholders already know much about how they use the forest, what is going on there, and what they think should be done with the forest in question. Otherwise, it will be just a monologue from our side, which is not what we want. What we want is our stakeholders’ opinion on the state of things in our targeted forest and also feedback on our proposal, so that we know whether we need to change it and whether we need to change our communication strategy in general.
This is what we did in The Codru Quest research and educational project, where we not only asked farmers and local residents about the forest in question, but also inquired about their attitude towards the current state, what they know about the plans for the forest management, and what they themselves suggest should be done in the forest. This allows our stakeholders to feel themselves as consultants and contributors to the entire forest management proposal with its discussions and implementation.
Finally, the fifth principle of effective stakeholder communication recommends us to include a call to action in all our messages. Indeed, we want our stakeholders not only to receive information about ecosystem services and the value of a forest, but also to act upon this information and to consider our proposal for sustainable forest management in their decision-making or to suggest an alternative proposal and alternative scenario. Therefore, call to action is like a bridge between our communication and the following engagement.
An illustrative example that we can bring here is the call to action, which we included in The Codru Quest project. We simply asked our stakeholders, who completed the questionnaire, to subscribe to our newsletter, to connect with us in our educational activities, and to supply us with additional information about the forest, their uses of the forest, and what they think should be done there. We also approached several interested and influential stakeholders and asked them to help us either with volunteering for our project or as contact points in their community, so that they could spread the news about the project, what we do within it and what we propose in terms of improvement of quality of ecosystem services in the Codru forest.
Overall, here we touched upon just several principles of effective stakeholder communication. Certainly, you can find many more principles, methods, and tools in the literature. So, we encourage you to go to the website of the course, go to the reference list, and see any other resources you can find on communicating with and engaging stakeholders.
However, talking about engagement… Our communication with stakeholders does not immediately translate into their engagement. So, how can we capitalize on communication and educational activities that we have already done in order to propose real action for our stakeholders to implement and for their decision-making to favour our sustainable forest management? This is what we will talk about in the second part of this final training of the course. See you there!