Building corporate trust through effective communication

Posted on Feb 24, 2015
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Resource companies are more focused than ever before on corporate social responsibility.

Mining, forestry and energy companies understand there’s a growing interest from governments, investors, community and consumers about how they do business, including short and long-term economic, social and environmental impacts.

But good CSR includes more than what a company can squeeze into its annual sustainability report.

Many companies are reluctant to promote the work they do in communities and to manage their environmental footprint for fear of it being labeled as “greenwashing.” While resource companies need to be strategic and sensitive about how to communicate their CSR activities, they should also be consistently sharing stories about corporate citizenship, whether it’s a community investment or the strict standards applied to environmental controls. It’s as much about building and maintaining reputational value and building trust as it is about managing risk.

Good communication and public relations

This is where good communication and public relations comes in. The PR industry has an unfair reputation in some circles for delivering so-called “spin.” While that may be the case in some instances, most people who work in an around industry know the job is about properly communicating the company’s good work and building trust. That means knowing the right time, place or medium in which to deliver the information. It’s about knowing when to make noise, and when to keep quiet.

The best PR work is that which goes largely unnoticed, especially in the resources sector. The strongest stakeholder relationships are those built directly between companies and communities and/or governments, with communication teams hidden well in the background and successfully delivering the information to those individuals and groups with whom the company needs to communicate.

Different public reactions

Consider the case of two sectors in BC – pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) – and their relationships with local First Nations.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal has generated dozens of negative media headlines in recent years, based on strong opposition from First Nation communities across the province. Aboriginal opponents argue the pipeline negatively impacts their local economy, culture and tradition and harms the environment. Meantime, the LNG industry has found several partners in First Nations communities in the province.

Why the different reaction? Some argue the LNG proponents were better communicators and as such, have developed trust with their stakeholders. They engaged early and often with First Nation communities, giving them a voice in the development process. That is the result of good CSR policy and effective communication working in together. What’s more, having a more solid reputational foundation has made it easier for the BC government to champion LNG as promising new industry for the province in the years to come.

Even environmental groups aren’t as vocal about their objections to LNG as they are to the proposed crude oil pipelines across the province. While some argue the two resources have differing environmental impacts, it’s also true that the LNG industry got off on a better foot from the beginning.

Strong CSR communication

Other examples of strong CSR and communication working in harmony in the resource industry come at the specific company level. One example is work done by Vancouver-based Goldcorp Inc. through its Above Ground blog and magazine, which highlights the company’s CSR practices through a targeted readership, instead of simply putting out a press release every time a community partnership is struck. The blog also includes a feedback mechanism to encourage an ongoing, respectful dialogue. It’s one way to gain feedback outside of the traditional community meeting, which is usually geared towards a specific project and not a company’s overall approach. It’s also more accessible for many stakeholders.

Another great strategy is empowering stakeholders to speak for you. A positive story in traditional media is hard to come by, but good communication can help companies earn a genuine kudos from other stakeholders such as community groups or non-profits.

An example is the industry work behind the federal government’s new Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act, which requires Canadian resource companies disclose payments made to governments around the world.

The Act was development with input from a working group that included representatives from two key mining associations – the Mining Association of Canada and the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada – alongside civil society groups Publish What You Pay and the Revenue Watch Institute.

The mining industry groups decided to join together with the non-profits to help shape the contents of the Act, and the results have received recognition from a wide range of community organizations including Oxfam Canada. They also generated positive headlines in mainstream media publications such as Globe and Mail and The Huffington Post.

Strengthening reputations

These are just some examples of how the combination of good strategic communication and CSR can help strengthen the reputation of a company or organization. Of course, the work is never finished. Companies need to stay on top of their communication and messaging to ensure it remains relevant and changes with the times and any special circumstances.

Good communication is consistent and helps companies to ensure their vision and values match their commitments. Communication helps build trust. Consider it a leading indicator of which direction the company is headed, which hopefully, is a positive one.

Robert Simpson is president and CEO of PR Associates, a Vancouver-based public relations and communication firm. 

Photo courtesy of Seabridge Gold.

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