#OB2022ThoughtLeadership: Leveraging tech for stakeholder engagement in a crisis—a focus on the energy sector

BusinessBusiness sustainability in energy sector

We all want to associate ourselves with people that are winning or at least perceived to be wining and that exactly is what a responsible brand does to prospective employees. Organizations that build responsible brands attracts prospective employees to their company.

In fact, three-quarters (76 percent) of millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work and nearly two-thirds (64 percent) won’t take a job if a potential employer doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices, according to the 2016 Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study.

Therefore, one cannot talk about the benefits of a strong brand particularly Return On Investment (ROI) as well as the other tangible benefits that it comes with if your stakeholders are disenchanted and disgruntled about your business. Business sustainability in the energy sector is largely about people and the ability to mobilize and invest the right financial resources where it belongs coupled with cutting edge technology.

The insurgent of a novel pandemic over the last two years with no end in sight yet has had a telling effect on brands. Therefore, whether one is embarking on brand reactivation, rebrand or any form of brand initiative, you cannot do it without a successful stakeholder involvement and buy-in.

Consequently, the people factor is a key ingredient in ensuring that the sector thrives because whether you are producing power for household or industrial consumption, it all revolves around people. For professionals whose jobs are among other things to ensure that messages are well tailored with precision and accuracy for easy consumption by the business’ targets, considering people as part of the most valuable key stakeholders is non-negotiable.

Public Relations’ uncompromising role in business sustainability cannot be over emphasized regardless of the name it is called in one’s organization; be it Corporate Communication, Public Relations or Marketing Communication or Public Affairs.

At the Volta River Authority (VRA), the role is currently played by CSR and Community Relations staff as well as Corporate Affairs and External Relations staff. Clearly, the role of communication is a priority to the Authority and without mincing words, it is a great place to practice communication despite the fact that it is an engineering institution.

Established by the Volta River Authority Act, Act 46 in 1961, as a power utility company at the time with the mandate of generating, distribution and transmission of electric power, the Volta River Authority remains the biggest power producer in Ghana and the company running the biggest hydroelectric dam with a capacity of 1020MW within the sub region.

The Akosombo Hydroelectric Power Plant and the Kpong Hydroelectric Power Plant are VRA’s hydroelectric power producing stations in the Eastern Region. The Authority’s Thermal Power Plants are primarily located at Tema and Takoradi in the Greater Accra Region and the Western Region respectively.

As established earlier, the VRA business is about people hence the need for the Authority to ensure that whatever it does, it includes its stakeholders particularly that group of people whose livelihood have been affected as a result of the operations of the Akosombo and Kpong Hydroelectric Power Plants.

In some other phraseology, they are referred to as Project Affected Persons (PAP) but for us at the Volta River Authority, we have conventionally over the years refer to them as our Impacted Communities. These communities are made up of the 80,000 people who were affected by the Volta River Project and were subsequently resettled and hosted by communities totaling 52 communities. Perhaps, the nomenclature is due to our unbendable passion and hope of how positively we intended our operations to impact them be it immediately or in the near future.

This is a commitment which is channeled through our policy document known as the Community Development Programme (CDP) framework document which guides our engagements and projects towards the impacted communities.

A stakeholder can be defined as ‘any group or individual that can influence or be influenced by the achievement of the organization’s goals’(Freeman, 1984, p. 46), while for Dunham, Freeman, and Liedtka (2006, p. 25), it represents ‘a group that the company needs to exist, particularly customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, and communities’.

From research, the term stakeholder first appeared in 1963 in opposition to the notion that shareholders are the only group that management must refer to.

In this write-up, the focus is on communities as stakeholder.

For a year-long anniversary celebration like a 60th anniversary celebration which the Volta River Authority marked in 2021, stakeholder engagement was key. Since the VRA business revolves around people, its trite that people are made the center of the celebration

In the midst of a surging pandemic. There is fear of unknown. There is high rate of infections. Deaths. People are grieving and mourning their loved ones. How does an organization ensure that it put smiles on the faces of members of its communities while assuring them of a brighter future? At the VRA, engaging stakeholders in a pandemic demand that the Authority ensures the following three important things are applied:

  1. Clear, consistent communication

Making sure your business succeeds and sustained demands that all parties including your stakeholders have a clear understanding of the why and the very minute key performing indicators of the business if they deserve to know. Every information concerning the business ought to be shared in a consistent and deliberate manner in achieving the business objective.

Engaging stakeholders within the energy sector in the midst of a pandemic entails that the communication professional communicates in a manner that is clear and consistent. Unclear messages cannot produce a clear result. If you are inconsistent with your communication, stress everyone including the business you are paid to execute.

  1. Set out how you want to engage with your stakeholders

We had to draw out our progression with significant stages where stakeholder engagement will be needed and why it is treasured. The above for the Authority is very important since stakeholder engagement is a continuous process. It is not a one off event hence we had to map out at what point or stage of the project or business we intended making use of our stakeholders and how do we engage them.

It is also instructive for us to do the above because the team understands that we are likely to make progress when our stakeholders appreciate and understand the what is at stake by owning the project or business.

  1. Build the project around the engagement

As established above, we believe one of the many reasons projects failed is because stakeholder engagement was not recognized as an integral part of the process. The COVID-19 pandemic has made communication professionals to appreciate that whether you are into insurance, banking, telecommunications or energy like us, business sustainability can only thrive on a strategic and well executed stakeholder engagement.

Stakeholder engagement, from the beginning, helps encourage involvement and a sense of continuation to a new prospect. It allows for adequate time and planning to include all relevant parties and to enable them to discuss, comprehend and internalize each project landmark or step in the process. When stakeholders do not understand the plan, it becomes difficult engaging and convincing them to move in the desired direction

Constantly, the communication professional is faced with holding stakeholder engagements with opinion leaders or in most cases the entire community comprising of about 200 to 300 community members. It does come across as a is a risky venture during this period of covid-19 pandemic just like going to the airport to board a flight to close a business deal whilst hoping not to contract the deadly corona virus; an effort not many people appreciate though.

Technology however comes in handy. How? Well, all the communication team did was to deploy the everyday communication gadgets like mobile phones which one must admit are equally a bit scares in some of these communities and as well as drone technology.

We use the mobile phone technology for voice calls as well as zoom meetings in instances where it was impossible for the team to be in the communities.

The drone technology was deployed in delivering educational and COVID-19 preventive materials valued at GH¢2 million to 16,000 school children in 30 schools in the Eastern, Volta, Western, Greater Accra and Yeji in the Pru East District of the Bono East regions as part of its 60th Anniversary celebrations using drone technology. The items comprised of VRA@60 branded school bags, pens, pencils and water bottles.

The rationale among others is to motivate the school children who may be seeing drones for the first time considering how remote some of these communities are to take up an interest in the sciences.

So, in essence, human efforts were augmented with technology to achieve a very well-coordinated and result-driven stakeholder engagement.

Our job as communication professionals includes creating value for our organizations through our work. No one can deny the fact that this value adds up to the collective effort of all units of the organization in driving the organization’s sustainability agenda. It is said that the value of a professionally executed public relations function is no longer a one-way flow between the company and its customers, but it is created by joint actions and formal and informal alliances with stakeholders who are both recipients and creators of value.

>>>The Author is a Corporate Communications and Community Relations Professional with over a decade’s experience within the energy sector in Ghana. [email protected]

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