Perception versus reality: Why you should routinely assess and survey your stakeholders

A key lesson I’ve learned over the years – painfully at times – is to be wary of assuming how someone feels about something without asking them. Such assumptions easily can be interpreted as indifference. While this holds true for anyone, it can be especially destructive when the victims are those you know well.

This might seem like advice for how to manage personal relationships, but it’s also quite applicable for organizations. A key function of PR and marketing is developing messaging campaigns that resonate with key stakeholders and address their main interests and concerns. The more adeptly your organization can speak to those issues, the more your stakeholders will feel heard and understood.

But how do you go about gathering this insight? If your organization has struggled with gaining traction with a particular audience, your answer to this question may very likely be part of the problem.

“We know what our customers want.”

Making this assumption doesn’t always backfire, but it also rarely generates the level of success you’d like to see. It’s tempting – and a little prideful – to assume everything you need to know about your customers is already hard-wired into your team’s experience. You can rationalize it by saying, “We don’t have time for research. We need to generate success now.” Or my favorite, “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you just know what they want to hear.”

Sure you do, buddy.

This is where too many organizations get in trouble. They stop trying to learn more about their stakeholders – whether they be customers or employees.  They also are complicit in not giving those individuals a chance to offer their feedback. They simply speculate based on what they think they know, and then proceed with business as usual.

That’s not to say this isn’t a necessary step. It is important to outline your stakeholders and their needs, as well as how you go about communicating to them. But that’s just the first step. You then need to test and evaluate those assumptions to see if they’re truly accurate.

Do the numbers add up?

If you engage in digital communications to any degree, you should have access to a number of performance metrics and data about those efforts and the individuals who are engaging with your content.

A word of warning though: there is so much available data these days that it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole and spend hours (if not days) analyzing it all. Focus on what’s most relevant to your customers and your organization’s goals. This topic is its own blog post, which, fortunately, a colleague of mine already has covered.

Let me be clear, I love a good data set. But numbers alone can only tell you so much. To get a clear, accurate picture of your customers, you also need to communicate with them directly. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to speak with them individually – although I briefly discuss that below – but you do need to gather their feedback about your organization and their needs in some capacity.

Some of the most common and effective ways to do this include:

Online surveys: Surveys are a great way to reach a large number of individuals and gather hard numbers that can be used for benchmarking and gauging future success. To keep your expectations in check, internal surveys generally see a 30-40% response rate and external ones see a 10-15% response rate, according to

Focus groups: Focus groups can be quite useful, particularly early on in a research phase. When done correctly, they allow you to speak with a number of people who represent key stakeholders and get their views on a variety of questions and topics.

One-on-one interviews: Another way to get helpful qualitative insight is to set up one-on-one interviews with existing or potential stakeholders. As much as possible, try to ask the same questions so you can easily compare and contrast answers to identify relevant themes. Also, don’t be tempted to pick only those individuals who’ll speak your praises – you want to hear the good and the bad.

With each of these, it’s also important to recognize the possibility of courtesy bias, which is when people either tell you what they think you want to hear or hold back on helpful criticism. This is more common in face-to-face discussions, but it still can occur in surveys, especially when they are not anonymous.

One way around this is to have a third party facilitate these surveys and qualitative discussions. Not only does this allow respondents to feel they can be more truthful, the right third party also can help identify the most effective questions to ask, as well as make sense of all the responses.

Check your pride at the door

Invariably, an effective research process will highlight your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s not always easy to dive into critical feedback about your organization but doing so always helps you identify what can be improved and how you can better meet your stakeholders’ needs. It also shows your stakeholders that you care about their views and concerns, and that your organization is willing to change to better serve them.

As you might suspect, not regularly engaging with your stakeholders can make them feel ignored and/or undervalued, and in our experience, that is a sure-fire way to encourage them to find someone else who can better meet their needs.

Greg Surber

Greg Surber, APR, is a public relations strategist through and through. He works on a variety of accounts, leading research projects and content strategies, but he also has extensive experience with more traditional PR efforts including national and trade media relations campaigns.

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