Establishing and Maintaining Social License

Posted on Jan 24, 2020
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A Q&A with Robert Simpson, CEO of PR Associates

What are the top things companies should do to establish/maintain a social license to operate?

  • Have a communication strategy that is anchored in meaningful dialogue with stakeholders and rights holders, with the clear objective of building mutual trust, shared decision making and fairness.
  • Speak the same language, know your audience and make your science understandable so it inspires public dialogue, meaningful engagement, active participation and evidence-based decision-making.
  • What changes in the past 10-15 years have you seen in how companies establish social license?

  • From a communication perspective, companies have moved away from the deficit model (simply delivering information to stakeholders with the hope that stakeholders will trust the organization) to more dialogical models that allow for public engagement and meaningful dialogue.
  • What are some new approaches you have used to solve social challenges? Can you provide a specific example of where it worked well? Do you consider it to be innovative?

  • Often at the early stages of a project, especially in the extractives sectors, the communication between communities and companies is focused on the geological, environmental and engineering sciences and unless the science is communicated so the audience can understand, there will never be any meaningful engagement or informed decision making. Poor science communication also creates an opportunity for those opposed to a project to gain a foothold.
  • As an example, a company was planning to build a 220 m tailings dam. Those opposed quickly drew a comparison and a visual image of the hover dam that holds back 10 trillion gallons of water, enough to cover a state like Connecticut 10 feet deep. As you can imagine this quickly became a concern for the communities downstream of the proposed tailings impoundment. While the project engineers tried to explain the dam wasn’t really a dam holding back water, rather holding back tailings, and the water was contained in a lined cell separated by three kilometres of sand from the dam, it wasn’t until a 3-D model of the area, complete with the mountains, valley, rivers and the dam to scale, did the community begin to become more positive.
  • If companies expect to have meaningful dialogue and evidenced-based decision making, it is imperative they understand their audiences’ science literacy level and teach their team to speak in the same language.
  • How do we measure SLO/and or how do we know if we are being successful?

  • In communication, the best communication is research informed. The best way to do this is through community surveys and opinion polling. But in order for this to be successful you need to begin with a baseline, where did you begin and where are you at now to determine if the bar is moving in the right direction?
  • How important is government in establishing/maintaining a social license?

  • Government is critical, both as policymakers and supporters. Keep in mind many government decision makers are not technical, therefore they need to be briefed with information they will understand.
  • How have technologies changed the approach to community engagement?

  • There’s no question that social media is playing a critical role in how we communicate and engage, something that extractive companies have been slow to adopt or do well.
  • Social media is also responsible for increasing polarization, decreasing trust and interruptive in evidence-based decision-making.
  • Do you see any difference or similarities in social engagement in Canada, North America vs Latin America vs Asia?

  • Yes and no. While the audience and their values may be quite different, at the end of the day, without mutual trust there can be no social license.
  • The social mechanisms for building trust are cultural and one size does not fit all.
  • What does the future of social innovation hold when it comes to establishing social license to operate?

  • This evidence combined with our results indicates that conceptualizing trust as reciprocal and dialogic in the context of social license may be more appropriate than the current unidirectional focus.
  • The extent to which companies trust communities will likely influence the extent to which they, for example, include community members in sharing the responsibility for decision-making processes; It will also affect the nature of the engagement process through which decision-making might be undertaken – both core facets of social license to operate.
  • I would therefore propose that in the context of SLO, future research might more appropriately ask: ‘to what extent do company and community members trust each other?’
  • At PR Associates, there is no learning curve because health and science communication is all we do. As experts and seamless extensions of your team, we use science storytelling to clarify complexity, capture imaginations, shift mindsets, and stimulate investment interest.

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