Building effective online interaction is all about listening, not technology.
By Loren Hurst
Some time ago, I noticed the term “ecosystem” began regularly showing up as a descriptor for business and political concepts. Once a term confined to the natural sciences, today we have industrial ecosystems, policy ecosystems, innovation ecosystems, and many others too numerous to mention. Embracing a whole-systems approach for these spaces is a welcome and overdue development. In the public diplomacy context, successfully engaging with valued stakeholders using virtual programming requires a similar appreciation for their true multidimensional natures.
Stakeholders and audiences are also ecosystems. They are complex and always evolving. As PD practitioners, we are often driven by the desire to control the narrative and project the messaging we want our audiences to hear. This is a tall task even under the best of circumstances. Data points and surveys are inadequate measures of an audience’s motivations, their particular circumstances, and their goals. Without a solid appreciation for the particularities of a given audience, it is difficult to deliver the right messaging and reliably measure impacts amongst the deluge of online information.
Virtual programming is an ideal way to engage stakeholders for research and community building purposes. Online personal interaction provides an open context where stakeholders can share, feel understood, and learn about each other. The goal is not to control the narrative or get the message across, but to facilitate understanding. The primary communication skill set in this case is listening, not talking. What does this look like in practice? And how do you create a sustainable, beneficial, and enjoyable experience for all participants?
Previously I suggested that virtual programming in public diplomacy is gardening taken online. Certainly, there is no one way to go about designing a virtual programming ecosystem. Just as there are multitudes of natural ecosystems with different attributes, each stakeholder environment requires a thoughtful analysis to account for its particularities. It’s helpful in this case to consider two principles that make natural ecosystems function so remarkably well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these same principles form key foundations for rich stakeholder relationships in the virtual context and should form the basis for any virtual stakeholder engagement effort.
First, ecosystems are efficient. There is no waste in a natural system. This is perhaps the most important aspect of a well-functioning virtual programming space. Significant effort goes into designing and executing virtual program models and they are difficult to scale. To the degree you can streamline the production process, the better off you’ll be.
Many of the routine requirements of virtual program management are easily integrated into templates with advance planning. This includes defining program models, language, and requirements for participants. Templates should always be simple and revised on a regular basis to simplify them further. The overriding goal is to make the experience for participants easy to understand, from both a technology and purpose perspective.
Building virtual programs can be time-consuming enough without the banality of typing endless emails. Simplicity and keeping focus on relationship-building is crucial if the cost-benefit calculus is to work in your favor. For example, using prepared language for routine asks to stakeholders ensures they understand objectives and promotes accountability. Furthermore, a standardized management process means that when something goes awry with a session, you can more easily identify the cause and fix it. By far the most important benefit is that a clean process preserves your mental bandwidth so you can focus on cultivating interpersonal interaction and not ticking administrative boxes.
Diversity is a second principle that underpins a healthy ecosystem. In the virtual context, diversity can be applied in several fashions; program objectives and models, stakeholder groupings, media usage, and any number of combinations. This is where it pays to be creative and “mash up” different approaches to your programs by designing interdisciplinary communications contexts. For example, if your goal is to connect stakeholders from different fields, regularly-occurring virtual programs can become a sandbox where ideas flow freely. The end result is a powerful context to gain new insights into audience preferences and new messaging approaches, all while deepening relationships.
Diversity in the virtual context is cultivated by, and is a direct result of, an efficient management process. The less time spent on technicalities, the more you can focus on interpersonal interaction. This is an under-appreciated yet absolutely key element of making all this work. Watching parody videos of people hunting for the mute button may be amusing, but in reality, fumbling with technology kills spontaneous conversation.
Let it ride
There is another dynamic that underlines the importance of efficiency and diversity, which may be described as natural “human” principles. People like to feel like they’ve been heard, see their contributions recognized, and want to belong to a community. These things are the foundations for public diplomacy success and have little to do with technology. An effective virtual programming ecosystem creates an open context in which you demonstrate how much you value stakeholders’ input. The agenda should be easy to understand, but not defined so tightly that it stifles open conversation. Ensure you leave enough room for unforeseen opportunities to share and learn.
In the end, the results you get come down to your skills as an interlocutor, moderator, and conversation leader. Technology is simply a tool; what matters most is your intent and purpose. In the case of virtual programming for stakeholder engagement, the goal is to provide a context for interaction, not to deliver a message. Take the time to reach out and be upfront about your intent. Talk to your stakeholders regularly and ask them what they think. Make it easy for them to provide their input through conversation. Not only will you glean valuable insights and deepen the relationship, but you’ll all be better off mentally and emotionally due to the human interaction.
Any views or opinions represented in this article belong solely to the author and do not represent those of people, institutions, or organizations the author may be associated with in a professional or personal capacity.
Loren Hurst is a strategic communications professional with over 25 years experience in public diplomacy, government relations, and digital communications. He specializes in the strategic use of virtual technologies to engage stakeholders, target audiences, and build reputation management solutions. As a practitioner, teacher, and voice performer, he works around the globe and addresses the communication risks associated with misinformation, especially on climate change and other science-related issues. His professional interests focus on the integrated application of strategic virtual communications, media skills, and sustainability.