Social license to operate, or not so much?

By Natalie Swart

As a communications agency with a long history in helping organisations do the right thing, we’ve been thinking a lot about the major projects being pushed through at pace ‘for the public good’ with very little community support or even attempts to get that support. 

One might call it an exercise in steamrolling and it doesn’t wash in 2022, even in the pursuit of great things like massively reducing our emissions.  Put simply, you need the people with you - always have, always will.   Current issues plaguing Auckland Transport and Three Waters serve as a timely reminder of this, after all what good is a city with more bikes and better pipes if that city is now divided and distrustful?

From where we sit, operating without a social license is like playing with fire - the PR fallout can derail the most well-intentioned project even after the shovel bites the ground and the perception of arrogance is a hard one to shake, even for the shiniest executives.

It seems that every year our communities hone their sixth sense for BS so let’s not pretend for a moment that a token survey, public meeting and carefully crafted media release constitute a comprehensive comms and engagement approach.  

Granted, robust and genuine communications and engagement will add time, cost and complexity to a project, but the risks of overlooking or undercooking it need to be very carefully weighed up.

At Wright Communications we’re talking to senior leaders about this issue every week.  We’re acutely aware of how fraught this space is and that consultation can create roadblocks, stymie progress and scupper efforts to mitigate climate change in meaningful ways.  

It’s hard stuff but should only serve to fire up our creative engines and explore new tools, a new lexicon and new ways to lead.

The advice we provide is always grounded in building trust.  It starts with making sure there are the right skills at the table from day one - including communications - and for that table to be a safe space where unpopular viewpoints can be thrashed out. It relies on a shared commitment to being transparent and authentic which means having your house in order and being fully prepared to answer the hard questions - straight up and without sprinkles.

When organisations do this mahi well, they earn their stripes as a trusted expert and more operational freedom then follows.  When they adopt an approach that smacks of secrecy or steamrolling, they risk everything.

The events of recent months challenge us to think long and hard about the important role we have to play as communications professionals, wielding our storytelling superpowers to connect with and bring people on a journey that will bring about meaningful change.

This goes far beyond serving up bite-sized content on social media or plastering a dumbed down set of FAQs on a landing page.    It requires an unwavering commitment to well-crafted content that dives deep where it needs to and helps the public to develop a rich understanding of the issue at hand the broader context.  It takes the form of a robust website full of well-crafted content, leaning into media opportunities, proactively penning editorial content and blogs and ensuring collateral and correspondence is clear, concise while demonstrating care and compassion.

Put simply, a social license requires more than soundbites and as the experts in all things words, it’s our time to shine – and ask the hard questions along the way.

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