THE CHALLENGE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS: LET’S TELL THEM A STORY
by Kathryn G. Arlen
How does the mining industry envision its public relations image? What are some major issues, and how can the industry effect necessary changes? These were some of the main questions raised in my article from our Feb/March Miners News issue, promising to continue that conversation with five mining professionals in a following publication. We discussed the definition of communication and its importance to the industry. Now we shall focus on the latter part: what kind of attitudes, policies, and procedures within the entire scope of pubic relations may work best—especially for that difficult task of changing human minds.
Again, the contributing interviewees to this research were/are:
Curtis Freeman, President, Avalon Development Corporation and writer for Petroleum News; Michelle Johnson, Projects Coordinator and Community Engagement, Alaska Earth Sciences; Dave Wright, owner, Tower Exploration LLC and Aurora Exploration; Tom Bundtzen, Pacific Rim Geological Consulting, Inc.; and Mike Heatwole, Vice-president for Public Affairs, Pebble Ltd. Partnership.
Two critical thematic concerns arose during our conversations: general public misconceptions spurring the “... dramatic need to inform and educate the public about the advances that have been made regarding safety, environmental awareness and consideration” (Johnson); and, second, “…educating the public as to where mining fits into modern life.” (Wright).
How can we try to fix or at least improve those situations? Some ideas to consider are making positive first impressions, reframing an approach to better interest your audience, and making productive use of narrative, telling your story.
Participants cited both mistakes and suggestions, and most emphasized the difficulty of overcoming negative first impressions. Initial efforts creating the Pebble Project served as an example recalled by some, noting that the type of “First Ambassador” efforts years ago may not have been as positive as desired. As Bundtzen observed, “Maybe that project got off on the wrong foot nearly ten years ago…better communication and more low key effort would have helped. But the current Pebble project operators are doing a fine job, and I think they have been honest and forthcoming about what they are doing.” Changing negative first impressions is a most difficult challenge, as Freeman added “…a lot of public opinion about what’s going on is established within that first six months. If you look at the companies that have issues with public relations, almost all of them have tried to fix a problem that was created early on, and trying to do that is almost impossible.” From The Consultant’s Craft (2001): “The first words out of your mouth have a great impact on the audience’s willingness to listen…even your handshake leaves an impression” (p. 253). Listening: another critical communication skill, a point Heatwole particularly consistently emphasized.
Once dialogue is established, and persuasion is your goal, the art of reframing plays a part—basically, presenting ideas and concepts to your listeners in ways that are pertinent to their realities. But that also means: do your research. “Successful reframing needs to take into account the views, expectations, reasons, premises…of those whose problems are to be changed.” (Change, 1974, p. 104). As Johnson critically added, change “…often appears to be an uncomfortable and even painful process especially when you are not the one in control or reap an immediate or foreseeable direct benefit.”
Mining’s public relations outreach must make its stakeholders realize an overall common goal and create shared values and positive outcomes. Freeman offered an example from Juneau years ago illustrating failure to do this: “They [developers] basically came in and said, ‘We’re going to put a mine here and we’re going to employ everybody’…without ever actually finding out if people really wanted to hear that. They assumed that was a good thing because they thought it was a good thing. Juneauites didn’t like it and fought them to a tune of $125 million. They later folded the property, spent $20 million reclaiming it and left. A long, protracted, painful period.” Again, breaking a cardinal rule of life: never assume.
Once it’s your turn, and you [presumably] have researched and listened effectively to your shareholder audience, try an entertaining and powerful persuasive technique: narrative, telling stories. Better yet, to find ways to make your story their story. Why is what you do important and helpful for them? And, as Heatwole emphasized, remember this: “If we don’t tell our positive stories to the wider audience in Alaska, who will? I think that…sometimes there’s a hesitancy to want to go out and talk forthrightly about what we do. What I would tell most of our colleagues in the mining community is be proud, fiercely proud, and tell your story because we provide the building blocks of society as we know it today.” Obviously true, and a point reemphasizing the second emergent research theme—how mineral production creates and maintains the society we enjoy today. Even the omnipotent oil industry relies on mined elements for pipes and other critical equipment.
Therefore, a final emphasis/suggestion falls to the concept of story-telling in its many various forms to help promote that critical realization. Narrative, humankind’s first method of recording history, remains perennially embedded within our social context as a means of relating and creating meaning. Mike Heatwole, representing the Pebble Project, again emphasized the necessity “…to be engaged, and to talk at appropriate opportunities about what we do. [For example] If you see a letter to the editor that really bugs you, step into that space and reply. Don’t assume that someone else will respond to it. …It’s kind of a collective responsibility.” As Freeman added: “When you have to change someone’s mind, and they’ve got the wrong impression of what’s happening…you have to regain credibility.” And Bundtzen re-iterated: “For the mining industry to survive in this day and age, it’s really important to be very aggressively providing accurate information—not just sugarcoat it, either. Just factual information about what’s going on.”
But to educate others in such a way that they better grasp how “mining fits into modern life” (Wright) is “an art form in and of itself” (Freeman). And one that must consistently remind the public of the products and services mining provides our society, or life as we know and prefer it, including “how fresh goods arrive at our grocery store to the electricity that comes through the wall…Without mining really everything we do and enjoy in society today goes away.” (Heatwole).
Be engaged and mindful; stay prepared and listen. Remember “what the oil industry learned 25 years ago, that prolonged public relations, telling people what you do for them everyday, pays off.” (Freeman). Get their attention, keep their attention, now tell them your story.
Kathryn G. Arlen is a human scientist, communication consultant, and freelance writer living in Fairbanks, Alaska. She can be reached at email@example.com