TORONTO (miningweekly.com) – Within living memory, mining was often a dirty, dangerous and toxic business. Health and safety was an afterthought in poorly-run operations, while waste and reclamation work was sometimes shoddy and, in extreme cases, simply disasters waiting to happen. Events like the 1966 Aberfan disaster in South Wales still resonate.
Today, modern techniques and the growing emphasis on sustainability and reclamation have revolutionised the mining industry. Health and safety is a primary concern, while companies now strive to establish corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes and consult with those stakeholders affected by a project or operation.
More work still needs to be done and a minority of mining companies continue to make mistakes, some of them elementary. Opponents latch on to these errors, compounding the perception of an industry stuck in the past. At a company level, the damage done can be immense: from delays to project failure.
Mining companies are often wary of social media, forgetting that the platform can enable companies to highlight their objectives, clarify the real narrative of their actions and help stop the spread of supposition and rumour.
“Social media can’t be ignored any longer,” Radius Communications president Jeff Silverstein told Mining Weekly Online. “Of course there are lots of rules and regulations around disclosure but, beyond this, companies should engage [in social media,] particularly if they have a good story to tell.”
“Some companies believe this will invite more scrutiny, which I think is a misguided position … I don’t think this argument can be made any more; it doesn’t really hold up in this day and age,” he added.
This is particularly true of those companies facing robust opposition campaigns. “There are some very effective campaigns being waged against mining companies that use social media. The only way to approach this is to tackle it head on, and for these companies to start telling their stories using social media as a central platform,” Silverstein explained.
Those who discount negative news, believing it will not affect the bottom line, are deceiving themselves. “The stock price is absolutely impacted by negative news and companies would be mistaken not to believe that is the case,” Silverstein said.
“Remember that it can start small and escalate,” he added. “[Negative news] can appear as a little article in a local community newspaper, which then gets picked up by the regional radio station. All of a sudden, it becomes a national story across the country and the Canadian media get wind of the details. Suddenly it has snowballed out of control.”
IT’S GOOD TO TALK
On the ground, it is vital for companies to develop and embed consultation mechanisms. “There are two main ways that a company can engage with stakeholders, particularly local communities, to try and head off problems before they reach a potentially project-ending scale,” Norton Rose Fulbright’s associate Michael Torrance told Mining Weekly Online.
Torrance is a member of the firm’s environmental and social sustainability practice and editor of the text ‘IFC Performance Standards on Environmental & Social Sustainability: A Guidebook’.
“One is to develop stakeholder engagement mechanisms,” he said. “This creates a constructive two-way dialogue that allows a company to understand the concerns of local community and, if possible, gain their favour for the project.”
“The second tool is to develop grievance mechanisms that make companies aware of stakeholder concerns. This then allows the company, through a formal process, to address concerns before they grow into something uncontrollable,” he added.
“I don’t think companies are utilising these tools and know-how as much as they could. However, the trend is definitely towards this becoming embedded as a standard practice for project development anywhere in the world,” he said.
If a company is faced with jurisdictional laws that seem less exacting than international best practices, then it should strive to achieve the higher standards.
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