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stakeholder credibility
6 min read

What a Month of ‘Promises’ Tells Us About Ensuring Stakeholder Credibility

What a Month of ‘Promises’ Tells Us About Ensuring Stakeholder Credibility

Comparatively few of us have had the difficult task of drafting a political Manifesto. But far more public engagement professionals know the challenge of making commitments to stakeholders!

Promises to the public

A month of a General Election campaign and most people are tired of the daily diet of election promises. Most of us can readily see that they are necessary for, in general, we don’t vote in a democracy without knowing the candidates’ intentions. It is not the only criterion.

Politicians can win votes according to Who am I? which can include name recognition and personal characteristics, as well as What am I? which covers group identity, and religious or geographic affiliation. There is also “What have I done?” before a voter starts to consider “What do I intend to do?”

Reflecting on ‘promises’, we realise that they are hugely variable. In recent days, we have seen how they vary in scope, precision and intent.

Never mind which party, just notice the language, as they promise to:

  • treble our offshore wind capability
  • ensure a much tougher system of regulation that puts consumers first
  • extend the £2 bus fare cap In England for the entirety of the next Parliament
  • appoint a Cabinet Minister for Children and Young people
  • increase the number of full-time equivalent GPs by 8,000
  • raise a carbon tax to drive fossil fuels out of our economy
  • make a £5bn investment to support community sports, arts and culture
  • outlaw the creation of 20mph zones
  • develop an ambitious strategy to reduce child poverty
  • create a tough new passenger watchdog, focused on driving up standards.

What we have here is a mixture of undertakings about processes, inputs and outcomes. They cover a range of situations which mask different realities. In some cases, the party is, in effect, saying it has a funded plan ready to execute. In others, there is a numerical target or an administrative initiative that can be taken. Some are more tentative – more a direction of travel, or just a statement of principle.

Quite a lot of Manifesto ‘promises’ amount to no more than “We actually haven’t got a clue what to do about this problem, but we will certainly look into it.” Or “We will consult and then create a strategy.”

Manifesto authors are right to be cautious. Think of the potential consequences, especially for the winning party. A few misplaced words, or an error in the promised number of whatevers, and the commitment will be recalled and played back by opponents and critics for years to come. Those who prepare these documents have to be skilled with words and have courage in spades. After all, they are writing to the entire population; we are ALL stakeholders.

Promises to stakeholders

The same skills are needed on a smaller scale when dealing with any disparate group of stakeholders.

Complex organisations often have to balance the interests of customers, suppliers, partners, regulators, communities and a myriad of others affected by what an organisation does, and how it does it.

And because those interests vary and are even in direct conflict, commitments and undertakings given to one stakeholder inevitably affect others, sometimes adversely.

I have always regarded a Commitments Register as an essential component of stakeholder management, and although it sounds simple and obvious, there are hidden complexities and the need to have a systematic approach to them.

Here are six important factors to bear in mind:

Who has the authority to make a commitment?

Promises made to giant key stakeholders may need a high-level Corporate sign-off, whereas more routine undertakings to relevant but less business-critical stakeholders might originate at a different level of the organisation.

If you are the public affairs team for a major oil company, what you say to Government Ministers has a different sign-off to what you are telling a local garage franchisee. 

Which stakeholders are addressed?

There is always the danger that commitments intended for some are heard by others. For years, well-intentioned reassurances offered by local Councillors or NHS Managers have been misinterpreted because what was intended for one part of the community has been questioned by others.

How is the commitment expressed?

Maybe it is not necessary to emulate the cautious tone of politicians, but many organisations have to be extremely careful with the precision of what they promise. A major industry regulator would need legal advice and approval lest its undertakings were challenged in Court.

The longevity of the commitment?

Almost every local authority has discovered that the stakeholder memory is better than the institutional one, with community groups regularly able to refer back to historic commitments made years before by Council leaders or officials placating anxious residents over planning or similar policies.

What are the implications of commitments?

In the same way as proposals for consultation need impact assessments, commitments made to stakeholders also require an assessment of their likely effect. In some cases, a process similar to an Equality impact assessment might be needed. In a large city, for example, a commitment to meet with community leaders from one ethnic group would almost certainly oblige the organisation to give other ethnic communities a similar promise.

Fulfilling the commitment

Naturally, stakeholders – and others - will be most concerned to follow what happens. Because they vary – some to do something, some not to do something; some to build, to keep people informed, the nature and intensity of the follow-up will also vary. Where organisations struggle to make good on their commitments, it may be a communications challenge and possibly a ‘damage-limitation’ exercise.

Examining these issues makes it obvious why system tools play an important part in helping Companies and public bodies manage these interactions. A commitment register should be as essential as a Risk register. Indeed, its absence itself constitutes a risk!

Some years ago, when the construction of the Elizabeth line took the form of six massive ‘holes in the ground’ – each one a multi-million-pound civil engineering project in its own right, I was asked to advise on stakeholder engagement between the site contractor and the hundreds of local stakeholders affected by these projects.

They mostly employed communications/PR staff experienced in building and sustaining great relations with shopkeepers, office managers, pedestrian groups, cyclists, bus operators, street vendors and so on. Dialogues centred around commitments made about the inevitable disruption to their daily lives and businesses, and much of the job was to ‘manage’ in such a way as to fulfil the promises made to these local communities.

What we found was that every site – run usually by different contractors – and using different ‘comms’ agencies adopted widely different approaches and observed very different standards. Yet there were some common stakeholders, and they complained bitterly about the inconsistency – and the poor standard of compliance.

With political manifestos, we don’t use the vocabulary of ‘compliance with commitments’. We just talk of ‘keeping promises’. But the principles are the same. To retain the confidence of stakeholders, we must demonstrate that commitments are taken seriously, given in good faith, communicated with precision and honoured to the best of our capability.

It is the best way to build and retain trust and one of the easiest ways to destroy it.


Written by Rhion Jones

Rhion Jones was the Founder Director of the Consultation Institute and is an acknowledged authority on all aspects of public and stakeholder engagement and consultation. He advises Tractivity and will be contributing expert analysis and commentaries on current issues.

Rhion now publishes thought leadership articles regularly as the Consultation Guru.

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