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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?

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