Two-way symmetrical communication helping achieve business objectives

There are a large number of ways in which the practice of two-way symmetrical communication can be applied to help achieve tangible, money-making business objectives. It may mean that the speed at which money is made is not as quick as initially hoped, it may mean not quite as much money is made and it will definitely involve more ‘process’ being involved to achieve the objective of making money.

PR helps sensitive mining issues

But money will be made and objectives will be achieved; it just means a sufficient amount of respect needs to be shown to those who live in the region and who have a stake in it (e.g. people who utilise or who have an attachment with the local environment) and not take them for granted.

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Specific manifestations of two-way symmetrical in this context include, from a process perspective, undertaking the market and industry research noted in the previous stakeholder relations post in this series.

Secondly, the company can employ ways of accessing the resource being mined that obviates, as such as possible, problematic issues manifesting themselves.

Thirdly, the mining can be delayed for a (probably significant) period of time, waiting for the community to become more up to speed on the mining.

Fourthly, not mining in the most visible and/or sensitive and/or problematic areas (inside vineyards etc) that are scenic or tourism-critical. Alternative means of accessing the resource could be utilised or it could mean that some resources are simply not accessed at all.

Fifthly, utilise means of extracting the resource that have, aesthetically speaking, as low an impact as possible (i.e. it’s hard to see them for key vantage points). Mining companies are already employing this approach. It has meant additional costs in designing innovative infrastructure and equipment, but undergoing this process (forced innovation, if you like) is an opportunity for innovations in efficiency and cost-reduction to also occur.

Sixth, put in place a monitoring system for the local environment, supported by the development of an overseeing scientific sub-committee, to detect if there any impacts occurring from the mining. Salient factors in regard to this follow:

  • The sub-committee should include independent scientists approved by the organisation and, possibly, the community
  • Include local community members in the sub-committee (their close-hand examination of the process will give it not so much added rigour, but a deeper connection to the community. This will help minimise scepticism towards the sub-committee’s credibility)
  • Agree on benchmarks for any potential negative environmental impacts (e.g. gas leaks, compromising aquifers, chemical leakage, coal residues on grape vines, wildlife deaths etc)  that might occur and, importantly, what levels of impact should halt mining until the issue is resolved to sub-committee’s satisfaction
  • The sub-committee is funded by the organisation but it must be independent in the analysis it undertakes and decisions it hands down
  • The organisation needs to outline in what way it will incorporate the sub-committee’s decision making into its own decisions. In all likelihood, the organisation should articulate it takes the sub-committee’s decisions and advice very seriously, but it will still make its own final decisions on the matter in partnership with the appropriate government and regulatory authorities
  • Once creating the sub-committee, it will be difficult for the organisation not to take its advice. This underlines the importance of, very clearly and very proactively, articulating and communicating the sub-committee’s terms of reference early in the process.

This post and the one preceding it on issues management and best practice PR do not contain an exhaustive list of the issues management and two-way symmetrical communication management approaches that can be applied to a situation such as the one addressed. But it should underline that taking these approaches is not difficult to do and it should also go some way towards making it clear that to achieve sustainable business outcomes, it is common sense to take approaches such as those suggested.

Do you agree or disagree?

What elements of what has been proposed do you support or not support? Why? Are the rationales for two-way symmetrical communication approaches valid, or do you think they are not practical in a business environment? Will these approaches help make companies’ approach to stakeholder management outcomes and/or profit-generating capabilities? Or not? What experiences of your own can you share in stakeholder management in the context of situations such as the one outlined that we could learn from?

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Issues management and best practice PR for winning stakeholder relations

Mining and oil & gas companies frequently face ongoing where they can benefit from the application of public relations’ guiding theory, two-way symmetrical communication. Market research; negotiation; and adapting operations and objectives to more closely meet the needs of their stakeholders help organisations achieve optimum business outcomes than those that don’t.

Public relations for mining in sensitive regions

Whether it’s called public relations or stakeholder relations, the power and utility of two-way symmetrical communication provides organisations with the conceptual framework on which to achieve meaningful business outcomes.

This post explores how public relations can help an organisation evolve the way it operates to better meet stakeholder needs and wants and, therefore, create stronger relationships, an enhanced reputation and greater and more sustainable profit.

This post and its sequel constitute a ‘case study’ that discusses an ASX-listed corporation permitted by law and regulation to undertake a contentious form of mining in the Victoria, Australia countryside. Going from experiences in other Australian regions, the local community – including farmers – are likely to strongly resist the mining initiative. This is because the mining could, arguably:

  • damage the environment
  • instigate gas leaks that are a danger to human and animal health
  • compromise the area’s attractiveness and, by extension, its wine-growing, tourist-driven economy.

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Issues management and strategic communication challenges

The challenge for the public relations team is to identify and implement:

  • issues management mechanisms and processes to maximise the likelihood of local support for the mining, or at least minimise resistance and the likelihood of reputation damage to the mining company
  • apply two-way symmetrical communication methodologies to the issue. For instance, conceptualise how the mining company might be able to evolve/compromise its approach to satisfy local residents, politicians, media etc. And do the same for how local residents might modify their potentially problematic, obstructive and divisive reputation-damaging behaviour.

Big business taking relationship responsibility

Let’s not forget, organisations are perceived as being the big bad wolf most of the time. In a situation like this, however, the mining company will be bringing employment, revenue and infrastructure to the local community. In Australia, many smaller communities struggle to stay in existence. The migration of young people to major cities continues. This is not just a social phenomena, it has cultural implications as well.

Whilst one should not expect a country’s culture to remain static, there are elements to Australian rural existence that provide great meaning and significance to our culture. For a country where most of its people live by the ocean, there is a disproportionately large amount of its mythology and cultural fabric based on life and existence in the ‘interior’ – or bush.

Could it be that people – including country-based people – need to recognise the benefits of mining companies more than some currently do and make more of an effort to work with these companies to negotiate a mutually beneficial (i.e. apply a two-way symmetrical communication approach) outcome than they currently do?

In situations like the one under discussion, though, it is a new situation that people on the land and in country towns are facing. It is predictable, then, that companies new to the area should prepare to be met with suspiciousness of their motives and business activities as they are:

  • new to the region
  • introducing new situations, businesses, people to the vicinity
  • behind what is ultimately going to lead to profound change in the region
  • an entity with lots of money, a big corporate profile and friends in ‘high places’.

And whilst it isn’t black and white, I’d say it is incumbent on the new kid on the block to drive communication, awareness and relationship-forming, rather than those already in the region. What many companies fail to recognise, to their profound detriment, is that even those who may not have a financial stake in change, will have an emotional and social stake in the change.

It is THEIR town. It is THEIR country. It is THEIR family history which resides there. So who do you think is responsible for allaying the fears and suspicions that come with being the new arrival? Especially if it is a well-resourced, company with a strong reputation?

Applying issues management to stakeholder relations

Here are some thoughts how issues management approaches can be applied to this situation. Of course, issues management occurs before an issue takes on problematic characteristics, but in a situation like this the problematic characteristics are pretty much embedded – so one does what one can!

Firstly, identify, research and analyse stakeholder management approaches taken by mining companies in Australia and overseas in similar situations, identifying potential best practices to apply (and, of course, worst practices that should not be applied).

Secondly, undertake locally-based qual and quant research [LINK] if possible before introducing the notion of mining in the area. This approach is probably idealistic, however, as by instigating the research alarm bells will ring. A quite feasible variation to this approach is undertaking market research in an area with similar characteristics where it is not intended to undertake mining.

It is likely that this will provide the mining company with invaluable information to inform its conceptualisation of how morning should occur and its complementary approaches to stakeholder management and communication.  Primary purposes of this research are to:

  • test assumptions that provide the basis to anticipated stakeholder management
  • test potential approaches that could be applied.

Thirdly, identify potential supporters/opposers/influencers in – or on – the local community.

Fourthly, ensure that the communication strategy includes customised elements that specifically address these people (information packs on topics of influence/interest to them, such as jobs, environment, farming, tourism etc).

Of particular strategic interest will be the ‘influencers’. These will be stakeholders either embedded in the local community (e.g. mayors, local media, high profile farmers and tourism operators etc) or outside the local community (e.g. farming industry association leaders, advocates or opponents of mining in similar situations from other regional areas, scientists/economists or others who have studied the impact of similar situations on the environment and local economies etc).

Which ones are going to help in your communication the most?

I don’t know; what does your research tell you? You tell me.

Fifthly, prepare thorough Q&As on all salient issues and options for mining development plans for utilisation, eventually, in proactive communication. More immediately, however, from an issues management perspective, the company needs to be ready so that if communication is needed in regard to a potential emerging crisis, this information is on hand and ready to utilise.

There will need to be a strong negative slant to the questions, in expectation of heavy questioning. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best is a good attitude to have. The Q&A based on divisive, problematic issues will not be part of the proactive communication content that is disseminated.

When you prepare the Q&As, it is imperative to take a balanced pros and cons approach that is truthful and evidence-based. Further, the evidence-based content, messaging and rationales will have a greater degree of credibility if supported by scientific 3rd party stakeholders’ approval of the content.

Some of the Q&As will, in all likelihood, have a strong focus on economic benefits to the local region, environmental safety and how local infrastructure will be enhanced (perhaps anti-flooding and bushfire prevention measures will be part of this).

Do you agree or disagree?

What elements of what has been proposed do you support or not support? Why? Are the rationales for applying issues management and two-way symmetrical communication approaches valid, or do you think they are not practical in a business environment? Will these approaches help make companies’ approach to stakeholder management outcomes and/or profit-generating capabilities? Or not? What experiences of your own can you share in stakeholder management in the context of situations such as the one outlined that we could learn from?

By the way, if you found this post of value, please share it through Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Thanks in advance!

Stakeholder relations IS public relations

I’ve been driven to distraction of late by yet another cunning, self-hating term that public relations has come up for itself to hide, no doubt, the distaste it feels, and it feels non-PR people similarly feel, for the term ‘public relations’ itself. The term is ‘stakeholder relations’.

Stakeholder relations or public relations

It is bone wearyingly ironic that the public relations discipline feels the need to cloak itself in names that differentiate it from a practice many assume involves media relations alone or, worse, as a practice that is primarily characterised by spin and monologic, broadcast communication.

If you go to the Wikipedia definition of stakeholder relations (or engagement – same difference), you will find it defines the field with the following notions:

  • Involving non-organisational stakeholders in organisational decision making processes
  • Listening to organisational stakeholders
  • Stakeholders influencing organisational decision making
  • Forming partnerships between an organisation and its stakeholders.

This is nothing more than a manifestation of the primary theory that underpins and shapes best practice public relations, that of two-way symmetrical communication.

Corporate social responsibility is public relations

I have a similar gripe about nomenclature with corporate social responsibility (CSR). Much of the work that takes place under this banner is, similarly, based on the two-way symmetrical communication model. I suspect CSR grew out of public relations and has since been working to undermine the potency of PR as a strategic business management discipline.

The importance of theory to communication

I am highly sceptical that either stakeholder relations or CSR has the depth of academic and theoretical discussion underpinning them that public relations has, especially in the context of two-way symmetrical. This is important as the academic examination of disciplines gives it a rigour and power that is otherwise denied it.

Stakeholder relations in practice

In many instances, stakeholder relations in practice seems to have a heavy emphasis on community consultation. There is nothing wrong with this, but I wonder if this is another reason for the generation and increasing application of the term – it’s being used to further differentiate community relations from public relations (i.e. in this context, the evil media relations and spinning falsehoods).

I know that in some organisations, at least, stakeholder relations operates in its own discrete area, separate from corporate communication. As to which area serves which – well, that’s an interesting one…

Rebranding public relations

Discussions on the rebranding of public relations have been going on for longer than any of us would care to remember. But the profession clearly doesn’t have the stomach for the battle and I personally can’t see it changing brand names.

One of the reasons for this is that PR is a huge money making industry for consultancies and it would take such a concerted partnership across the world to achieve this outcome it doesn’t seem feasible.

Do you work in stakeholder relations? If so, what does your work entail? Do you see it as being public relations and why or why not? Do you think all existing public relations activity except for media relations,  whether the PR activity is strategic or tactical, should be called stakeholder relations? Why or why not?