Communication, Public Relations And Image: How Does Mining View Itself ?
By Kathryn G. Arlen
Public acceptance and understanding of the mining industry, particularly regarding issues of human safety and environmental threats, have probably never appeared more critical than they are right now. These concerns have always, of course, been “sticking points” in the collective human eye, but as advancing communication technology continues to both perceptively shrink our planet and expand our home and world overview, disseminating accurate information about mineral and resource development becomes increasingly crucial. Although the industry may be well aware of the problem, the real question still remains: what is the best way to accomplish this? How do we best inform the populace? Public relations often comes in just two flavors: good and bad.
In this article and in the following Miners News publication I will outline some of the specific PR challenges the mining industry currently faces by presenting interviews with five individuals/companies here in Alaska. Being a human scientist with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in professional communication, I have closely followed this situation over the last several years, hoping to discover if not some precise answers at least possibly better suggestions for proactive behavior. Let’s begin by defining the problem, setting the stage, and showcasing some of the major challenges mineral development faces.
Contributing individuals from both Fairbanks and Anchorage include: Curtis Freeman--President, Avalon Development Corporation (over 25 years) and writer for Petroleum News (15 years); Michelle Johnson--Projects Coordinator and Community Engagement, Alaska Earth Sciences (since 2006); Dave Wright--owner Tower Exploration LLC and Aurora Exploration (14 years); Tom Bundtzen,--Pacific Rim Geological Consulting, Inc. (15 years); and Mike Heatwole--Vice-president for Public Affairs, Pebble Ltd. Partnership.
I asked all participants the same five questions: 1) What is your definition of communication? 2) Of public relations and particularly as it pertains to the mining industry? 3) What do you see as the industry’s main PR issues? 4) How do you envision we can possibly fix those? 5) And how do you feel that change occurs in human beings?
Without attribution and in no particular order, these are their “communication” definitions:
“Communication is a word by itself, in all sorts of forms. It can be private or public.”
“Conveying information in any form, be it verbal, written, visual, physical, etc. This can be intentional or unintentional.”
“It pertains to how people connect, and by its nature is multi-faceted…a key point/critical component is that it is two-way, you have to have that understanding or loop built into it…more importantly, the listening aspect. The two-way dynamic is very, very important.”
“Being able to explain something to others in a way that they understand it.”
Finally, “A clear, concise conveyance of the subject at hand.”
Above all, communication is the science of “how,” connecting and attempting to interpret the sciences of “why.”
Easily transitioning to the topic of public relations, the five participants next offered the following observations about PR and its role with the mining industry.
Freeman: “Public relations, for the mining industry, is talking to people who are not part of it—the public at large. Everybody calls them ‘stakeholders,’ or whatever you’d want to call them, but people other than the ‘choir.’…For this industry, I think the ‘early and often’ communication is the only way to go. Especially with the work we do, early exploration. Our employee manual refers to this as “First Ambassador.’ A lot of public opinion is established within that first six months. First impressions are important, like meeting someone for the first time.”
Johnson: “Public relations conveys a tone of managing perceptions. Historically, mining, like most resource development industries, hasn’t taken a proactive approach to public relations or community engagement, but we now recognize the value that an informed public has, and striving to educate and involve the local population allows for greater use of local resources, especially human resources.”
Wright: “PR is being able to communicate with people in a way that makes them feel like you understand their position and encourages them to try and understand yours. For mining it’s educating the people as to where mining fits into modern life.”
Bundtzen: “I think the most critical thing this industry can do is not only working generally with the public, but obviously on environmental and social issues…The first things that come up are, ‘What are your activities doing to the environment? How is it affecting my life, in a positive or negative way?’”
Heatwole: “Building out from communication, PR is how a company, group, or entity interacts with the public. I chose those words intentionally because sometimes it’s so easy just to bundle something up, create a newsletter, then move on. But you have to have that two-way communication, Q & A sessions after presentations, to see if you’ve met the mark in terms of what you’ve presented.” As he and I then discussed, we are talking about that very common human thinking error of assumption. Do not assume your message has been properly received and consequently understood just because you have dutifully put something on paper or conquered your fear of public speaking and delivered what (you thought) was a clever, informative oral presentation. Heatwole: “To me that listening piece, that two-way dynamic is very, very important.” Listening--one of communication’s most critical tools.
Heatwole, representing the Pebble project, that huge copper/gold deposit in SW Alaska, currently doing battle with environmental forces regarding possible threats to the salmon industry, emphasized that “We learned during the Ballot Measure 4 campaign that people want to support mining, but they want more information as to why…especially with the safety and environmental ethic that folks bring to the table.”
These are two topics most participants singled out, along with the need to continually provide accurate information. As Freeman succinctly state, “PR is 24/7.”
The question behind the question, however, still remains a simple “how?” How do we best do that? You may provide perfectly accurate, detailed information, addressing all pertinent areas, or so you thought, but how do you know your message has been received? Planting seeds in fertile, receptive soil usually works, but not casting them across limestone. Human motivation to understand and opportunity for interaction are essential conditions for successful public relations in this, or any, industry.
In the next issue we’ll take a closer look at specific PR problems and how to, hopefully, improve potentially negative situations, also focusing on change. By what “magic” do we human beings shift our minds’ perceptions? Meanwhile, I remind you of a concept all interviewees mentioned in one way or another: never assume. To that I would add two more critical rules of life: choose your battles and don’t burn bridges.
Kathryn G. Arlen is a communication consultant and freelance writer in Fairbanks, AK, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.