The new reality for resource projects is the necessity of what is commonly called “social licence.” What this really means is that the final word on new resource extraction projects does not come from a quiet regulatory process, but rather through the loud and messy world of public opinion. The challenge is that most Canadians have a default position of neutrality to antipathy about resource development. Few people see much upside, and most are acutely aware of potential downsides.
These attitudes are driven by some fundamental trends. The first is urbanization. As Canadians have congregated in large cities, they have become very removed – physically, economically, and emotionally – from the resource industry. There is very little awareness of the role resources play in economic growth, job creation or tax revenues. As a consequence, most city residents think that resource development is done in the interests of somebody other than them.
The second trend is the growing priority attached to environmental protection. Most people attach a great deal of importance to environmental issues – not just climate change but even more importantly, the protection of fresh water and wilderness areas. Appeals by critics of a project based on its potential damage to fresh water will find very receptive ears. While most Canadians remain unprepared to contribute financially to better environmental outcomes, they are more than willing to impose costs on business.
The combination of those two trends makes generating support very difficult. Environmental concern will be elevated, and cannot be offset by economic upside. Economic upside will be seen as minimal by urban residents and Canadians are increasingly loath to make explicit trade-offs between economic growth and environmental protection.
The third trend impacting on public opinion regarding resources is a changed narrative about the Canadian economy. People aspire to an economy driven by technology and value added, brainy, activities. The role of technology, skilled workers and modern practices in resource extraction are not understood. Resource development is seen as an anachronistic part of Canada’s past, not its future. The phrase “hewers of wood and drawers of water” is now used in a decidedly pejorative way.
In this hostile environment, how does one create a public opinion environment where a project can be approved and built?
The first thing for a company to understand is that its team of regulatory lawyers and experts can only get it so far. If you are seeking to develop resources, you are now involved in politics. Public communications and stakeholder management is as important as convincing the regulator and is essential to convincing the government.
Every project will require a different strategy and set of tactics but there are some basic rules to follow.
First, take environmental mitigation seriously. Do not be dismissive or appear dismissive of concerns. Minimizing public concerns about the environment will undermine confidence, not build it. Acknowledge that there is potential environmental damage and demonstrate a rigorous plan to prevent in the first instance and mitigate and repair in the worst case. Strong support from local first responders will be essential. A critical part of environmental confidence is to communicate publicly about the developers and not just the development. In order for people to feel that the environmental risks are acceptable, they have to have trust in the people that are managing the environmental risk. Tell them about your values, and your commitment to environmental protection.
Second, ensure that there is local benefit, including for any indigenous communities involved. This is important because, on the assumption that governments will be getting pressure not to approve from the environmental activists, it is important to have offsetting political pressure to approve from the local community. Also, First Nations have never been more powerful politically. If they don’t see both strong environmental protection and clear economic benefit to them, they will oppose the project. If they oppose the project it will be very difficult to get approval. Like it or not, they are developing a de facto veto and you must accept that and work with it.
Third, make public communications a priority. If you are involved in politics, then use the appropriate tactics. Use opinion research to determine who it is you need to be talking to and what you need to be saying to them. Importantly, if you can keep this issue out of view in Toronto that will almost certainly be helpful. Be open to the likelihood that the things you consider to be relevant and important may be very different than what the broader populace thinks is important or relevant. Be prepared to invest in paid media – both mass advertising and social media. Mass media is how you deliver an unfiltered message. Social media is where the debate about your project will be occurring. Earned media news coverage can almost certainly be counted on to be, on balance, negative to a development. To overcome this will require investment in messaging that circumvents news coverage. Remember that, outside of the development area, you do not need support. You need acceptance, disinterest or acquiescence.
Lastly, understand that in building public confidence the perception that you are strongly regulated is your friend. Don’t be embarrassed that you need to be regulated or appear to resent the regulator. No matter how much people trust the developer, they will always want strong oversight. Embracing that makes the development seem more worthy of support, not less.
The acquisition of social licence is not a legal or technical exercise. It is a political exercise the success of which is determined by whether political actors feel they can support your project without damaging themselves. This requires developers to come out into the open and win the argument for their project. That’s a campaign.
David Herle is a principal partner and founder of the Gandalf Group, a leading polling and research firm based in Toronto.