No mining company would think of building a mine without knowing what was in the ground. Why then do so many launch communication campaigns without having a clear understanding of target audiences? Companies that take the time to understand stakeholders before launching communication programs will be far more successful than those that do not. Strategic, science-based research can make or break such programs. Using stakeholder analysis as a foundation for strategic corporate communication is a relatively new approach for the coal mining industry. Its popularity is growing as stakeholders become more sophisticated in how they process, deliver and consume information. Companies can use information gathered through qualitative and quantitative research to develop strategies for connecting with stakeholders that have the added advantage of aligning with internal corporate strategic and operational goals.
A metallurgical coal mining company recently contacted our firm for assistance in responding to increased community opposition to mine expansion plans. Organized local opposition to the project appeared to be gaining momentum, and the company was concerned about its potential to derail the proposed expansion.
The company already had a communication plan in place, but the community relations piece of the plan had been developed without baseline research. As a result, the company did not clearly understand the extent of the community’s opposition to the project, or how this opposition could impact its ability to earn social licence and secure the necessary permits to move forward. It also meant the company had no way to measure the success of its plan to change perceptions.
Our first step was to design a statistically significant perception audit to determine the level of community support of and knowledge about the project. The audit also revealed the demographic makeup of the community, its perceptions about the company’s outreach efforts to date, as well as its attitudes towards the mining industry in general.
The survey data provided some surprising results. Most significantly, it showed 72 per cent of respondents actually supported the mine expansion project, thus contradicting the company’s perception of significant community opposition. The research gave the company a more accurate picture of the community’s attitudes towards the project, and became the basis for its subsequent communication with provincial and federal governments. It also helped the company in communication with local journalists who, until that point, had given more credence to the opposition’s point of view.
The other goal in conducting the survey was to collect data about how stakeholders in the community gather and process information and use it to create an education program focused on raising awareness about responsible mining of metallurgical coal and to address some negative, outdated perceptions of the industry.
It was discovered that the majority of those who opposed the project processed information visually and verbally. The company opted to deliver its message in a format stakeholders would find relatable which, in this case, involved creating a narrative, using video, images and online tools.
A three-part video series was created to meet the needs of visual learners. The first video illustrated mitigation measures for dust, noise, protection and the protection of water; the second told the story of the company’s long-standing community involvement and commitment to environmental protection; the third focused on educating audiences about the use of metallurgical coal, as well as on modern extraction and reclamation methods. CDs of the series were distributed to each household in the area. The videos were also broadcasted on local television in high frequency over a four-week period.
For verbal learners, the company created interactive online tools, including a project-specific website that allowed for a two-way conversation with community members. Questions posed by community members were answered online on a daily basis.
For the verbal communicators, a telephone hotline was set up to allow community members to discuss concerns directly with a company representative. There were also weekly town hall meetings to give people an opportunity to pose questions directly to the company president.
Research was used to measure the effectiveness of the tools. It revealed that 67 per cent of the households surveyed had viewed the videos and 88 per cent of community members had seen the television broadcasts. Overall, impressions of the company and support for the expansion plans improved seven percentage points, up to 78 per cent.
Robert Simpson is the president of PR Associates, a national public relations firm that specializes in providing strategic communication for the extractive sectors.