It is important for any project, regardless of its type, to be clear on its ‘why’ – the reason behind the project. In the case of extraction industries this is even more important.
One of the biggest risks we’re seeing is the potential impact on organisational reputation and the wider environmental and social license to operate. This means, you now need to be aware of the broad social and environmental issues of a project right from the start, and the related opportunities it could create. And consider how a project can be done in a more socially and environmentally responsible way.
For those in the extraction industry, you’ll know that any project delays, which can occur during the consenting or permitting process, are costly. Often these are caused when the ‘why’ isn’t successfully communicated with the people the project will affect the most – local residents, and community and environmental groups. Understandably, they are often worried about a large, new and potentially disruptive neighbour. But if you know your ‘why’ and the social and economic benefits, and listen to their concerns, the outcomes can be a win-win for everyone.
These wins could be anything from jobs and investment in the local community that have benefits well beyond the project’s life to the benefits that come from using the extracted material (eg. Building products, energy, steel, concrete, etc).
I’m often asked how you engage with stakeholders and communicate the reasons for a project, or the ‘why’. From years of experience, I’ve learnt first-hand it comes down to developing authentic and credible long-term relationships with individuals, communities and related groups. This is not only beneficial for everyone involved but also for helping to achieve the right social and environmental outcomes.
Tips on developing effective relationships and communicating your 'why':
- Develop relationships as early as possible: You can’t start talking to people early enough - many will become your neighbours. Before project plans are finalised, engage with residents and groups and be up-front about the anticipated social and environmental effects and the positive opportunities it may create.
- Engage in genuine consultation: If possible, ask locals to contribute their ideas to the plan itself. Ask environmental groups to help shape the scope of baseline assessments. Ask residents to contribute their ideas for minimising any environmental effects, such as landscaping, or for ideas following closure. This is a great way to understand concerns held by the local community as well as creating ownership and support long before you submit the paperwork for approvals. In the process, you may even create local advocates who will support you down the track.
- Identify key influencers: These are the people who may help set the tone for the group/s they represent and can play an influential role in the engagement process. Understanding how interest groups operate and interact is important to developing an authentic relationship. It’s a good idea ask the key influencers for their advice on how to make the first meeting with their group constructive.
- Work with people who truly represent the community: Try to work through council groups who are nominated representatives of the broader community. Consider the different cultural perspectives of those involved, their connections and the cultural significance of the area that may exist in your project location. Engaging these stakeholders shouldn’t be underestimated as a fundamental requirement, and it’s worth considering employing a cultural advisor to learn how your project can meet your community’s unique needs.
- Acknowledge the potential environmental, social and cultural impacts: Mining isn’t always painted in a positive light but there are social, economic and bigger-picture benefits worth discussing. By being transparent and identify all possible impacts, you’ll help build trust. Present the information clearly, give local residents and community groups time to talk among themselves before seeking feedback and be prepared for questions you haven’t considered.
- Help people to understand the information: One of the biggest issues when a project comes to town is fear of the unknown. And unless you’re a mining or quarry professional, it can be difficult to understand plans and technical terms. Help people to understand what is proposed – technology is a great aid; use 3D models and video fly-throughs to provide a realistic idea of what’s coming. Then you can have an informed conversation based on what’s planned, rather than what people are imagining.
- “Here’s one I prepared earlier”: Sometimes the quickest way to help people understand the nature of a project is to take them to see a similar project in another community and encourage them to talk to the local residents there. Arrange it so people can have a cuppa with those who’ve been living next door to a project site. Often, this type of early investment is the catalyst for community development and opportunities.
- Let residents choose their offsets: Successful mitigation projects are rarely about the dollars. Mines often fund scholarships or recreational facilities like parks and playgrounds. Take the time to discover what will make a meaningful difference in the local community. Talk to people with their finger on the local pulse: school principals, hospital directors, cultural leaders, GPs and parent groups. Listen to their needs and find out what will really resonate with them.
- Bring the decision makers to your meetings: This will help to ensure discussions are transparent and enable the community to get immediate answers. It also sends your stakeholders the strong message that you respect them enough to get the right people in the room to listen to any concerns and provide information immediately.
- Offer hope only when you mean it: If you’re offering a change or an incentive, be specific. Don’t use vague words that might be misinterpreted. Nothing kills cooperation more than a group thinking it’s got a concession – and racing back to tell everyone – only for the company to renege or seemingly change position at the next meeting.
- Keep in touch: It takes time to build trust. Even after all the meetings are done and agreements are in place, regularly update the community. Remain available to answer questions and check in with people: “How are you feeling? Is anything worrying you?”
Generally, I find that by getting on the front foot, being open and honest with people and listening to their concerns, you can nearly always build a trusted relationship. By helping them to understand the ‘why’, the benefits, and by respecting their voices and needs, it will hopefully mean that by the time you get to a project’s approval stage, it’s a formality not a battle.
We’re here to help client’s look at the social and environmental aspects of projects and can support with the consultation process, as well as other areas of a project lifecycle. Feel free to contact me to discuss any queries you may have.
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