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Channels of communication with stakeholders

Understand key principles about communicating with stakeholders to build positive relationships and create genuine value for stakeholders and sports organisations.

The board has overall responsibility for stakeholder management, which includes:

  • identifying key stakeholders
  • building effective relationships with stakeholders
  • managing the risks associated with strategic partnerships and communications

Therefore, it is very important to understand key principles about communicating with stakeholders if we are to build positive relationships and create genuine value for stakeholders and our sports organisations. These are:

  • consistency in communication (consider developing a communications policy),
  • use of suitable methods and channels of communication for different stakeholders

Bodies will want to create communications plans that present their vision and goals, their structures, governance and people in the best possible light. These plans are more often created by a staff member or a sub-committee whose primary function is communications, and the board should satisfy itself that stakeholders have been prioritised with key messages appropriate to the audience. Reactionary communications rarely present the best of an organisation, and reputational damage is too often the cost paid for failures to plan.

The Institute of Business Ethics, in its 2016 report Stakeholder Engagement – Values, Business Culture and Society, states that a company that seeks to build a positive relationship with a wide range of external stakeholders must be clear what its values are, and its own behaviour must be consistent with the message it gives to stakeholders. A company claiming values that it does not adhere to will be exposed quickly.

Traditional methods of communication

Two traditional mainstays of an organisation’s communication are the annual report and, where held, the annual general meeting.

Annual report

The annual report has historically been considered a key communication tool to engage with members or shareholders and other stakeholders as it comes from the board and contains information on an organisation’s performance, its strategy and any changes to the governance structure or practices in the past 12 months. The annual report is also an opportunity to celebrate achievements, impact and successes, sharing with stakeholders how the organisation is meeting its objectives.

Typical contents include:

  • Reports from the chair/board and the senior management
  • A summary of the main achievements of the organisation
  • Updates on different areas of activity linked to the strategic plan and performance against key KPIs
  • Governance changes, such as any changes in the membership of the board governing committee
  • Board composition and attendance
  • Key decisions taken
  • Financial reports
  • Remuneration, where appropriate
  • Principal risks and how they are mitigated
  • Information on environmental matters, sustainability, employees/volunteers, social responsibility and how these have been factored into decisions and activities

As the Financial Reporting Council’s ‘Guidance on the Strategic Report’ notes: ‘the components of an annual report should not be drafted independently. It is only through an integrated approach to drafting the annual report that relevant relationships and interdependencies between items of information disclosed in it will be properly identified and appropriately highlighted through linkages and signposting.’

Moreover, though annual reports have historically been retrospective documents, they are increasingly being used to set out a strategic vision for the organisation.

Organisations may print copies of annual reports, but they are frequently now only available in electronic format.

The annual report remains important, but it can now be supplemented all year round with other methods and channels , which can be more immediate and may, in fact, have a greater impact.

Annual meeting

Private companies do not need to hold an annual general meeting unless their governing document requires them to do so. Where they are held, AGMs provide the opportunity for an organisation’s leaders to report to members on the year’s activities and progress, present financial accounts and allow the membership to exercise their rights as members. AGMs play an important role in the democratic life of an organisation through voting on certain issues (such as board appointments and resolutions) and offering an opportunity to hold leaders to account and provide feedback.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been highly disruptive of AGM seasons and has prompted many organisations to stage them virtually. This has had a positive impact for many, with attendance and engagement improving. However, with the expiry of legislation that overrode legal requirements relating to how meetings are held, organisations should address any changes needed to their governing documents to be able to hold meetings virtually.

Other channels of communication

The diversity and speed of communication has changed considerably over the past several years. From emails, social media and constantly evolving websites to online meetings, the choice of how we communicate has become more complex. If anything, change has accelerated since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Technology opens up a number of engagement opportunities, from receiving consultation feedback online to streaming live action from events. However, because of this increasing complexity, organisations should take extra care to consider that how and what they communicate is consistent with their values, mission and vision as well as consistent throughout the different channels used.

All modes of communication in your organisation should be included in a formal communication strategy or policy document and conveyed to staff and volunteers during an induction process so that it is clear what the expectations are with regard to communication.

Let’s look at different ways to communicate with stakeholders and how to develop appropriate methods and tools to communicate.

Information contained in an email can be legally enforceable, and a sports body’s staff and volunteers should be clear about the implications of such communication. Email is often used informally but time and care should be taken when constructing correspondence as they are written, formal communications. Creating clear divisions of responsibility and delegated authority will help to ensure no staff member or volunteer makes decisions, enters into agreements or commits the organisation beyond the limits of their authority. Internal controls such as delegated financial authority policies and service contract procedures are essential as they apply to decisions and their communication.

It is often hard to convey everything in an email, and organisations should consider whether a more interactive mode of delivery is necessary. Many people’s ‘inboxes’ are full of emails, so think carefully about whether you need to send that long, detailed note or if the communication can be condensed and include and invite for further discussion.

For the board, it is usually preferable to meet in person where dialogue and debate can take account of body language and nuance. However, with many volunteers facing time pressures, offering remote access can help ensure more frequent participation by busy board members. Using some of the many online meeting tools now available, it is possible to include several board members from different locations. The pandemic has quickened people’s familiarity with online meetings, and many have recognised that the removal of physical obstacles to attendance can have a positive effect on both engagement and diversity.

The organisation’s Articles of Association should determine whether a meeting can be held remotely. That should not be an issue for more recently incorporated companies as the Model Articles, available from Companies House, will apply. Provided they have not been amended by the company’s bespoke articles; the Model Articles allow directors to hold their board meetings remotely. Directors of a company incorporated before 1 October 2009 will not be able to hold their meetings remotely unless the company has either updated its articles to enable board meetings to be held in this way or adopted the new Model Articles. The old default articles, known as ‘Table A’, did not give directors the ability to hold meetings other than in person.

In addition to an organisation’s articles allowing for meetings to be held remotely, they should also allow for the board to establish specific committees to engage with key stakeholder groups.

The relative ease with which online meetings can be arranged and attended also make them a useful mechanism for engaging with stakeholders in other forums, such as roundtables, town hall meetings, focus groups, informal networking events and one-to-one discussions. This gives an organisation a good deal of flexibility both when communicating with interested parties and when seeking their input.

Social media is the use of web-based and mobile technologies to create interactive platforms through which individuals and communities share, create, discuss and modify user-generated content. Examples include:

  • blogging and networking via users’ own websites
  • networking sites – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram
  • sharing sites – YouTube, Flickr, Pinterest, Google+
  • review sites, publications, third party blogs – Blogspot, WordPress, industry forums.

The immediacy, affordability and reach of social media make it ideal for organisations to communicate with a broad range of stakeholders

Social media should be considered as part of the organisation’s communication strategy, including other policies and procedures concerning email, the internet, anti-bullying, data protection, codes of conduct and so on that protect and promote the organisation. While some social media accounts can be created in the name of the organisation, others will be held in the name of individuals or teams. It is also likely that the people who work or volunteer for an organisation will have their own personal online accounts.

Not everyone will be experts in (or even comfortable with) social media, and there are legal, reputational, stakeholder and communications risks factors of which the board should be aware. Legislation that applies to social media activity should be reviewed and form part of continuous board education and training plans. It includes:

In managing the risks, sports organisation boards should be assured that there are policies and controls in place, and that staff, athletes, coaches, volunteers, board members and other internal stakeholders are fully apprised of these. If such policies do not exist, a system should be implemented to allow relevant staff or other stakeholders to develop them and have them approved. Put simply, when using the organisation’s systems to correspond externally, whatever is written, whether via email, on a web forum or using social media, the individual needs to be aware that they are a representative of the organisation.

Guidelines and policies do not need to be long or complicated, but they do need to:

  • set out the benefits and risks associated with using social media
  • link to disciplinary rules and disrepute clauses
  • reflect the rights of free speech
  • ensure trademarks/usernames are registered
  • explain how negative, inaccurate or defamatory comments will be handled

In addition, they should stipulate the organisation’s tone of voice. This may be different across different platforms or when communicating with different stakeholder groups. Guidelines need not be limited to individuals but can also be created and shared with stakeholders, such as clubs.

Electronic communication best practice

Organisations should also consider the volume of communication required per method of communication. Too much communication can become overwhelming and counterproductive. For example, too many poorly crafted or excessively long emails can be detrimental to stakeholder relationships.


The Equality Act 2010 requires website owners to ensure that their websites are accessible to users with disabilities. Section 29(1) of the 2010 Act says that:

A person ... concerned with the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public (for payment or not) must not discriminate against a person requiring the service by not providing the person with the service.

Accordingly, neglecting to provide a service to a disabled person that is normally provided to other persons is unlawful discrimination. This applies to commercial web services as much as to services that are not web-based.

For instance, visually impaired visitors may use speech synthesiser software to read the text in the HTML code of web pages and translate it into audible speech. However, many websites include images that contain text as part of a prerendered picture file. These may be unreadable by the software if the text is not embedded in the image properties or alternatively available in text somewhere on the website. This could render the content inaccessible to visually impaired users and could therefore be discriminatory for the purposes of the 2010 Act.

Sections 20 and 29(7) of the Act specify a duty for service providers to make reasonable adjustments to enable disabled persons to access their services. This applies as much to website accessibility as it does to providing participation opportunities.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a series of guidelines for improving web accessibility. Produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) the WCAG are the best means of making websites useful to all users. Although they are not an all-inclusive list of issues facing web users with disabilities, they are internationally recognised and adopted standards and explain how to solve many of the problems that your users with disabilities face. The guidelines are a good indicator of what a court would reasonably expect website owners and businesses to follow to ensure that websites are as accessible as possible and in line with the Equality Act. At the most basic level of compliance (priority 1), these include suggestions such as:

  • providing text to accompany non-text elements (such as pictures or graphical buttons for navigating)
  • document organisation for sensibly ordered readability without the need for the accompanying style sheets
  • making sure all information conveyed through coloured content can be inferred or is available without colour
  • clearly and simply labelling the website’s content
  • clearly delineating changes in the natural text of the document to other content, such as captions

Compliance with both the priority 1 and 2 checklists is recommended. The priority 2 checklist includes:

  • ensuring the foreground and background colours have sufficient contrast for those who struggle with differentiating colours
  • using an appropriate markup language rather than images to convey information
  • using header elements to convey structure
  • using style sheets to control the layout and presentation
  • clearly identifying the target of each link
  • providing further information about layout (for example, a sitemap)
  • using navigation mechanisms in a consistent manner
  • providing metadata to add semantic information to web pages
  • dividing large blocks of information into more manageable blocks when possible

Accessibility should be addressed at the web design stage as many fundamental design decisions have an impact on accessibility. This should not be viewed solely as a compliance issue but rather as ensuring the fullest interaction of the organisation’s audience.

Changing messaging according to audience

Having identified key stakeholders, the board can delegate the design of a detailed
stakeholder plan, including methods of communication, to staff or a subcommittee. The plan should contain the key messages the organisation wishes to convey to each stakeholder, bearing in mind this will not necessarily be the same message to everyone.

Let’s look at what key stakeholders may be interested in hearing about.

While members will often be interested in elite success, results from national championships and other competitions, they will also be seeking reassurance that the organisation is being effectively governed and managed. Governance, equality, safeguarding and other areas of business should all feature on the organisation’s website, while updates or features can be communicated easily through social media.

Members will understandably want to know if there are any member specific discounts, offers, initiatives or opportunities, as any customer would. Technology has advanced to a level where sports bodies can monitor what web pages were visited, for how long and whether the visitor clicked through to related features and pages. This provides essential feedback on the level of interest in a story, policy or update, as well as the visitor numbers to any protected member areas on a website. As a result, the organisation can assess if there are particular areas of interest for members and visitors, leading to the creation of similarly tailored products or information in future.

For some members, the main focus of engagement is the annual report or the AGM. They want directors to demonstrate how they are fulfilling their duty to promote the long-term success of the organisation. Boards may wish to discuss with members what information they consider relevant.

Governing bodies are not required to publish board or committee minutes online, but it is good practice to do so. This can be a summary or an action log that sets out the important decisions and subsequent actions. Publishing full transcripts or excessive detail might influence the contribution made by board members as, knowing their discussions will be published in full, it might deter a free and frank exchange of views. Those elected by a constituent group may be particularly affected if the issue of conflict of loyalty arises, as members of the constituent group may expect their position to be promoted and protected at board level (despite the legal implications of a director or trustee doing so).

Sponsorship agreements and commercial partnerships need to be nurtured so that both parties maximise the benefit of the relationship. Sponsors are often primarily interested in information on the outputs from their support – for example, the impact of any programmes run in association with their brand. They will also be interested in the reach achieved by communications, in particular social media activity. Monitoring and reporting on tweets, retweets, exposure and related content can be valuable for the sports body and partners as a means of finding new customers and also understanding what content appeals to them.

Before engaging with an organisation, commercial partners will undertake due diligence to ensure they are entering into an agreement with a body that operates with integrity, is financially secure and is able to deliver what it claims to the sponsor. They will also be alert to any potential scandals or negative media about the organisation and related sponsorship activity. Where negative stories or behaviour are identified, commercial partners will want to know that they are being dealt with in an appropriate manner and so open and timely communication will be necessary.

Sports councils make explicit demands on the organisations they fund in terms of governance information as well as reports on the delivery of the sporting outcomes specified in funding agreements. Sports councils are not regulators but will request access to information such as quarterly financial reports, board minutes and minutes of other committees. Unless these are specified in the funding agreement, the sports organisation can decide whether to release redacted (edited) or complete copies of such information, if at all. Funders will also want to know at the earliest opportunity about any serious incidents or circumstances that may affect participants, the public or the investment made into the organisation.