Community Relations: Both Sides Must Engage in Dialogue

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With 30+ years’ experience working in Community Relations around the world and with his active contribution to several charity organizations (Hull Child Family and Services, Alberta Land Institute), no one can deny Mel Benson’s journey is quite impressive. A member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation located in northeastern Alberta, he maintains cultural ties to the land and places high value on responsible development. I had the opportunity to meet him in Brisbane, at the Boréalis Conference where he gave a speech about community relations in the extractive context. More specifically, his message concerned Aboriginal communities, who are also referred to as indigenes on the international scene. He brought an interesting perspective to the agenda: while managing their community relations, companies must consider ‘‘the risks of making promises you cannot keep and of trying to solve the problems of people you don’t understand.’’ In order to absorb what this implies for extractive companies and communities, let’s further develop these two ideas.

Making promises you cannot keep

When we look at case studies, recurrent issues that affect most community relations are the notion of time and the lack of a common language. The divergence between how companies and communities perceive time lies in their goals. While corporations want to follow a strict time table in order to get to resources as quickly as possible so they can access profits, on the other end of the negotiating table sit communities who want to protect their culture and traditions. A common language between companies and communities must be established to ensure both parties are on the same page. It is normal for communities to expect some benefits from an extractive project, especially considering that it usually won’t have many positive impacts on their lives. On the other hand, it is the companies’ responsibility to be transparent in their communications; it is the only way to open dialogue that leads to long-term relationships. They should not delegate negotiations to people who have no authority to make a decision and senior people have to be involved early and throughout the process. Have you ever noticed that CEOs are far more reluctant to break promises they have made themselves?

Solving the problems of people you don’t understand

Mel mentioned Robert Fulghum’s famous book All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, where the author talks about simple principles such as don’t take things that aren’t yours, share everything and clean up your own mess, that can be applied to our lives as adults. Mel linked these principles to the community engagement context. But most importantly, he pointed out how this is a flawed idea because it assumes we all come from a common experience. Which we don’t: our backgrounds are different and so are our experiences, our cultures and beliefs contrast, and assuming we are all motivated by the same things is inaccurate. Companies need to engage with communities in order to assess their needs and put aside the idea that including local communities is a gift they are giving them. It is not. It is a right they have. Make no mistake here, indigenous communities also have some effort to put into this. They must accept that culture is not a static thing and that it evolves over time. Traditional lifestyle is beautiful thing, but it is not the mainstay an economy. No society nowadays can exist without cash and community leaders have to make the decision that they want to participate in the modern economy.

The keys to success

Many external and internal factors will influence the relationship between a company and host communities of its projects. It is no secret really, in order to achieve successful community relations, considerable effort has to be invested into dialogue. Both parties must be disciplined, should come to the negotiation table with a reasonable agenda and accept each other’s differences. Also, they should adopt a win-win approach. The earlier both parties realize that the path to success implies a lot more than bargaining a bag full of money, the more likely the relationship will thrive. Long-term value can only come to be through a harmonious partnership that includes capacity-building and jobs for community members, business opportunities for local businesses, but above all recognition of the historic values that can be found in a community’s culture. Lastly, decisions made by companies must embrace the community’s collective vision for the future.

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