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The recent European Communication Monitor 2021 Survey showed the importance of digitalising stakeholder communications. But what does the post-pandemic world offer?

The survey brings together data from 2,600 communications professionals across 46 countries and is now its 15th year. There is a good summary of the whole report on Stephen Waddington’s, Wadds Inc, blog.

As the report highlights ‘39% of practitioners across Europe describe their unit as immature in both digitalising stakeholder communications and building digital infrastructure. In other words, few have reached digital ‘maturity’.

But video-conferencing has taken over the lives of practitioners because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 89.2% of respondents said that they used it for stakeholder communications during the past year. This was mostly for internal communications but for engagement with other stakeholders as well (although less so with journalists). Stakeholder dialogues with interest groups, politicians and communities is conducted by video-conferencing by 70.8% and non-profit organisations were likely to use it more than others.

Interestingly, the survey also finds that video-conferencing is less valued by stakeholders in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe so we don’t have a universal picture by any means.

But the trend of using video-conferencing is, according to the survey, likely to continue:

‘A majority sees the technology continuously as an effective tool for organisational communication and equally expect their stakeholders to share this opinion.’

There is no doubt that organisations have been trying to think creatively way about the way that they digitise their stakeholder engagement and are trying to stretch what can be achieved with Zoom, Teams, and other platforms.

There has also, in my experience, been more recognition of the need for outside professional help. If nothing else, then to help make digital engagement stand out from what others are doing. There is only so much staring at a screen full of faces that one person can put up with. Any variety in that is very welcome.

No doubt it is an area where many of us could do with some training and education, and I am certainly always on the look-out for what is working well for organisations online.

But thinking ahead, I am less convinced that politicians, one of our key stakeholders in public affairs, will be completely happy with continued video-conferencing. Of course, it will work for many situations, but the experience is that direct one-to-one discussions helps to build trusted relationships, especially early on. Certainly previous studies such as Vuelio’s, which was admittedly pre-Covid, pointed to the value to politicians of in-person events such as those that take place in Parliament.

But we also have to think about the changing shape of politics. The Government is shifting more of the civil service away from London and we have the rise of Metro Mayors (and the possibility of more to come) to name but two significant changes.

As always, we need to consider what the needs and requirements of our audiences are. So, will the audience consider that online engagement is a poor substitute for face-to-face engagement? Will it be considered ‘bad form’ not to visit, for instance, Treasury North in Darlington? Would it, as far as Government is concerned, reduce the economic benefits for the local area if meetings, events etc do not happen because we decided to hold a meeting from home rather than taking the time to visit? There are personal relationships and implications to consider but wider ones as well which may too have an impact on the personal.

In other words, we need to consider a number of issues related to how we conduct engagement after COVID-19, and these will be political as well as personal.

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