Business and the social licence to operate

Business and the social licence to operate

My most recent post on the social licence to operate focused on the challenges facing government.  With this post, I share some thoughts on business’ response to the social licence and what can it can do to get one.

Focusing on PR at the expense of PE

Decision-makers in business have been slow in responding to the demands of the social licence to operate. When it comes to business, its traditional mindset can often be characterized as “I own the land, I have the permits, now I can do what I am proposing”. As we are witnessing, this thinking leads to public backlash and opposition, resulting in project delays and cancellations.

When faced with opposition to a proposed project, businesses have tended to respond with public relations campaigns promoting the economic and social benefits of the project. We now finds ourselves in an age where launching an information campaign about the benefits of a project (jobs for people and revenues for government) and then having a ‘conversation’ will not secure a social licence to proceed. Engaging people and understanding their hopes, fears, concerns and expectations is what businesses must do. Based on what they’ve heard, business must then respond with the right mix of solutions, benefits and messages.

All politics are local

All politics are local, and none more so than when it comes to the social licence to build, develop and operate. A recent paper by the Michael Cleland published by the Canada West Foundation entitled “From the Ground Up – Earning Public Support for Resource Development” is insightful for its focus on the local aspects of the social licence. Cleland writes that “more emphasis needs to be placed on constantly improving performance on the ground in communities directly affected by [resource] development.” In my experience, people closest to a project have the most to lose/gain and will be the most vocal. When it comes to the social licence, business needs to shift its focus away from high-level PR campaigns to local level public engagement programs.

Connecting with the middle

Business will never convince the ideologically pre-disposed to support development or resource extraction. Typically, 20% to 30% of people are opposed no matter what a proponent says or does, and 10% to 20% of people will vocally support a project. This leaves a soft 50% to 60% in the middle who are open to both sides of the issue. Business needs to connect and engage with (the silent majority) of people at the community level who are concerned about the impact of a project on their communities, their homes and their families. This will require an open and iterative conversation with people (public engagement not public relations).

The Northern Gateway Tipping Point

I must admit that I was thinking of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway as the example of a business that is focusing on PR instead of PE. Then I read an interview with Janet Holder, the CEO of Northern Gateway in the Vancouver Province. Holder is quoted as saying that Enbridge is about to embark on meetings with communities, First Nations and the BC government to get them on side. It’s encouraging to hear “we are going to engage with First Nations impacted by this project and demonstrate there is value to them…in working with us.”

If Enbridge and Ms. Holder can listen,understand and respond to the concerns of people most closely impacted by the Northern Gateway pipeline – First Nations and non-First Nations – Enbridge will get its social licence.

Canada’s next big challenge

The challenge facing Enbridge, and companies like it, is whether it can it afford the cost of the social licence. Is there enough profit in a project to pay for the social licence?  This will be the big issue facing Canada’s natural resource, development and infrastructure industries and the governments and people that rely on these industries. As “drawers of water and hewers of wood” social licence has become Canada’s next big social, political and economic challenge.

Next up, social licence and the digitally-empowered minority.

Pierre Killeen

Pierre Killeen Bio:

Pierre is a leader and innovator in the field of online public participation, strategic communications and social media. He helps organisations design and manage public consultation processes that leverage the power of the Internet to engage citizens, stakeholders and members. He has conducted large-scale online public consultations for cities, public agencies, membership organisations and government departments across Canada. In 2012, he began serving as a public participation expert for the World Bank.

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