Leading with public affairs: rethinking stakeholder relations for startups

Gilles Ametepe

Partner content: Djembe Consultants

By Gilles Ametepe, Djembe Consultants

Leadership requires communication. People only buy into visions they know, understand or trust. Quite too often, entrepreneurs and innovators narrow communication to marketing – communication goes beyond marketing – and underestimate the need to engage and partner all stakeholders. At every point in time a leader must have 360 degrees view of the realities and the expectations of his stakeholders – both internal and external stakeholders. This ushers us into what should be the foundational step of a startup’s stakeholder relations strategy going forward: mapping its stakeholders.

Mapping stakeholders

No startup can deal with who it doesn’t know. Having a clear picture of a venture’s stakeholders – covering their profiles, their needs, their role, and influence – helps in designing the right outreach strategy. The mapping of stakeholders is to be done on a segment basis as the pool of stakeholders an organisation has to deal with, is diverse and calls for different approaches. In that process, be systematic, as to make it easy to design, track, update and upgrade the map – a simple excel sheet will do.

Different stakeholders, different approaches

For a startup operating in Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, key stakeholders are public institutions – industry regulators, local authorities including traditional leaders, think tanks, consumer protection groups and public advocacy groups that often include religious bodies. While regulators are more likely to concern themselves with quality of product / service provided, environmental impact, traditional leaders may be more inclined towards the economic impact of your business – jobs created, local content strategy, etc. It is therefore advised to design specific strategies to build and manage your relations with each stakeholder based on its profile and its area of interest. Do not adopt a one-fit-all approach to your stakeholder relations – deal with God as God and deal with Caesar as Caesar.

Oh, my regulator!

Regulators are primarily focused on creating the right framework for organisations to operate and thrive and ensure that they operate within same framework. Across the continent, every industry has a national or regional regulator. It is your duty as an organisation to ensure that you know your regulator, that you are in the know of all regulations pertaining to your industry and that you are in compliance with them. As John Selden says: “Ignorance of the law excuses no man.”; that statement applies to organisations as well and every organisation must endeavour to be knowledgeable of rules and regulations and be in the good books of regulators. Industry regulators should be the first people you call when things go south (after your internal stakeholders) as voluntary cooperation in times of crisis will always be counted in your favour.

Hello, internal stakeholder

Startups often forget to build a strong rapport with their internal stakeholders, which are often left to find their way around and are only given attention when their support or commitment is needed. Your internal stakeholders are often more critical to your goals than your external stakeholders; as they create with you, suffer your losses, invest in you and work to achieve your goals. Startups must therefore invest more in strengthening their relations with their staff, their investors, and their advisors. One of the easy ways to do this, is to organise periodic townhalls or send a regular newsletter. Always ensure that your internal stakeholders are the first to know – good and bad news alike.

New market, new strategy

Due to lack of resources and insight, some startups tend to do a lot of “copy & paste” across markets, but one basic rule of market entry is to tailor strategies based on research-backed needs. No two markets are the same and what works in Cairo may not necessarily work in Cape Town; keep in mind that “Africa is not a country”. As the continent with the highest number of countries and languages in the world, Africa is a melting pot of diverse cultures and economic profiles which influence consumer behaviour and buying power among others. There are similarities across markets but ensure that you design and implement strategies that take into consideration market specifics.

Here comes ESG

I know you have come across the ESG concept quite frequently these past years. ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance. According to Kyle Peterdy, ESG is a framework that helps stakeholders understand how an organisation is managing risks and opportunities related to environmental, social, and governance criteria. In the context of climate change awareness, socio-economic disparities, and governance challenges across corporate and political spheres, ESG has become of great interest to investors, advocacy groups, and public and international institutions. In dealing with these groups, startups should frame a clear approach to addressing issues pertaining to ESG. It is advisable to talk to an ESG expert to help in that framing even if it’s just a one pager that cover the three areas and which specific actions your startup intends taking under each of them.

The world of business has seen tremendous changes these past decades; changes influenced by technology, human right concerns, climate, and security issues among others. In the wake of that, much more is expected of organisations – including startups – across the world especially in Africa; this is the time to own your narrative and get the buy-in of your stakeholders, while at it, I leave you with a simple advice, “lead with public affairs”.