Government relations is increasingly requiring proactive public awareness and community engagement building exercises alongside traditional dealings with policy and decision makers. This is particularly true for resource industries. In resource development there is a lot of talk about ‘social license’, a term which is often misunderstood, misconstrued or overused but refers, generally, to the level of acceptance or approval at the community level for resource development projects.
We have heard the decades-long debate between the environment and the economy and, in Canada, parties on all sides of the political spectrum seem to be coalescing around consensus for a balanced approach. The current federal government is using the following language around the need to “protect our environment, fight against climate change, and grow our economy.”
These are certainly not new ideas, however, as the concept of social license and its role have evolved over the years and, as communities become more engaged and governments more responsive, we are seeing a general trend towards a demand for robust multi-stakeholder engagement.
How has this manifested itself? I think if we look at the events leading up to the federal government’s pipeline plan, we can see this trend, at a high level, in action.
On November 8th, Prime Minister Trudeau came to Vancouver to re-open the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station. During that same visit the PM announced a $1.5 billion Ocean Protection Plan which included the following tenets:
- Create a world-leading marine safety system
- Restore and protect our marine ecosystems
- Strengthening partnerships with indigenous communities
- Invest in evidence-based oil spill response methods
Less than a month later (November 29), the government announced its pipeline plan which included the approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion Project, a rejection of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline Project application and a new Tanker Moratorium on the North Coast.
While these pieces were announced separately and in isolation of each other, they create a compelling case when viewed as part of a whole. There is no doubt that there was a considerable amount of engagement, consultation and lobbying by parties on all sides in the lead up to both the Ocean Protection and Pipeline Plan and the outcome seems to indicate the government trending towards a holistic approach to policy development that takes into consideration a diversity of interests; they do not just want to engage with proponents or opponents, but seek to hear from broad multi-stakeholder groups, weigh the challenges and balance the interests.
So, what does this all signal? You need to have a total plan. You need to know all sides of an issue and your plan must be responsive. No, you are not going to please everyone, but you have to demonstrate that you have taken the concerns raised into consideration and your plan must address them with a balanced approach.
We have seen this approach in action in BC for a number of years. An example is the Code Review, the government led review of the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines. In this case the BC government brought together representatives from industry, labour and First Nations to provide input in the review process - bringing all parties to the table on the best way forward.
What does this mean for you in the context of public relations and communications? External communications can be an absolutely critical tool in government relations. Ultimately governments are responsive to the public, to the voter, and the more you invest in public relations, the more you will help your cause. If you can get public buy-in, you will have a much easier go of getting government buy-in.
As such, it means you should not and cannot just reach out to your allies, you must reach out to all interested stakeholder groups. Not engaging is not an option and as governments turn to communities as a measure of the merits of a project, so too must industry increasingly engage with broad communities of interest.