how strategic communications could change the industry’s future for the better – The Intelligent Miner

Communication is a vital piece of the sustainability puzzle in…

Communication is a vital piece of the sustainability puzzle in mining, but its potential impact is often underestimated. 

The ability to show others, through mediums such as the written word, audio and video, what companies in the mining sector do and how and why they do it, has long been considered peripheral to the business of resource extraction – a tool that investor and public relations (IR and PR) teams use to garner interest for fundraising or enhance a company’s standing in a crowded marketplace. Thus, most communications have been aimed at very select groups of stakeholders. 

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Briana Clark is Principal at marketing and communications firm, Holbrook & Associates

But, as skills shortages hit home, environmental and social concerns rise, and calls for transparency increase, more strategic and widespread communications could play a vital role in helping these businesses to survive and thrive.  

I’ve harboured this opinion for some time and wanted to pick the brain of an expert communicator… Enter Briana Clark, Principal at Holbrook & Associates. Clark, and her firm, specialise in using storytelling to help companies in science and heavy industries (including mining) to solve complex challenges.

“Good communication is relatively simple,” Clark told me when we spoke in early March. “Whether it’s for heavy industry or consumer goods, there are some common elements that make up an effective messaging or communications strategy. Core to that is a commitment to being transparent, honest and receptive. 

“If companies put those values at the heart of everything they do, then their communications will foster a dialogue or conversation, rather than being seen as defensive. It’s also important to approach audiences or stakeholders with empathy for where they’re at and what their experiences are. If organisations make these central to their communications efforts, then they’re more likely to be successful.”

Bridging the company-consumer gap

Heavy industries, like mining, do face some unique challenges in communicating. For instance, a prevalence of highly technical subjects, which might not be the case in more consumer facing industries.  

“Translating the science behind mineral processing or the geology of an orebody into stories that are interesting and relatable for wider audiences can be tricky,” said Clark.

She added that, because companies in the mining space are further removed from the people and companies who use their products, historically there hasn’t been much direct engagement with the public. Technical experts within these businesses may not be used to having to distil their knowledge and make it exciting for people outside of their domain. 

However, shining a light on different processes and operations and their importance to society can eliminate some of the mystery that surrounds the industry, build connections and, importantly, humanise these businesses.    

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Communication is mainly considered the domain of PR, IR or marketing teams. However, making communications a more intentional part of other business functions could open many new doors. Image: Unsplash

“The mining industry doesn’t have a traditional consumer face,” explained Clark. “But consumers interact with products that are made possible by mining every day. Over the past decade, the industry has become increasingly aware of this, and companies are having more conversations about what it will take to communicate more broadly.”

The hardest part is not just committing to the values that Clark outlined earlier – honesty, transparency and receptivity – but making sure that they proliferate into every communication effort that companies undertake. 

“Today, communication is everyone’s responsibility, from the exploration team to government relations, to procurement and beyond,” Clark said.  

“Communications professionals, whether they’re situated inside or outside of the company, must be able to work effectively with every arm of the organisation. Part of their job is to inspire and train those who are on the ground to integrate communication into their roles and embody those values.

“If everyone throughout the organisation is using the same vocabulary and language, and communicating effectively, that, in time, will build trust.”

Turning the tide on negative sentiment

“How well do you think the mining industry communicates its purpose to stakeholders and to the wider world today?” I asked Clark.

“Within the industry, there’s a growing awareness around the need for good communication, particularly when engaging with local communities and project stakeholders,” she replied. “However, if we look at how mining is perceived by the global population, some of the industry’s efforts are still struggling to gain traction. 

“A recent Intelligent Miner newsletter cited a statistic that mining ranks last, or close to last, among industries, when it comes to the perception that it’s fulfilling its responsibilities to society. That’s shocking. But at the same time, it isn’t. Because it’s hard for people to relate to an industry that they can’t or don’t engage with.” 

It’s true. People usually only hear about mining operations when something goes wrong, perhaps an environmental catastrophe or labour unrest. For many, that is their only contact with the mining industry. And it’s difficult to trust what can’t easily be seen or understood. 

“There’s some brilliant work being done by mining communications professionals across the globe, and there are lots of important conversations happening right now about mining and the industry’s purpose,” Clark told me.

“So, it’s not that the industry can’t communicate, or that it’s intrinsically bad at it. I think it’s actually very good at communicating its values internally and to stakeholders. 

“But mining opponents are often loud, well-funded, and good at media relations. Positive engagement efforts can quickly be drowned out by counter narratives. These usually gain traction because there’s mystery surrounding a project or the mining industry at large.

“And a lot of times, people’s perception of the industry comes, not just from negative news stories, but also from the cultural imagination.”

I found myself nodding at this point. Mines look very different today to how they did 50 or 100 years ago. Unless people have direct exposure to mining through, for example, a relative who works at a site, or maybe a school visit, chances are, that person will have learnt about it through history books or pop culture. And that will skew their perception. 

“I’ve had conversations where people in my life have asked what I’m up to these days,” said Clark. “When I share the work I’m doing with the industry, some of them immediately bring up how environmentally destructive they believe mining is, or even express surprise that mining is something we still do in our country.

“But the truth is that the mining industry is a driving force of the global economy. Looking towards the energy transition, the world is going to have to mine more metals and minerals than ever before. And those minerals can and must be extracted in an environmentally responsible manner.

“The general perception that mining is outdated, dirty and dangerous is partly why the industry’s good efforts in communicating its values aren’t connecting with the people they most need to reach.” 

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Shining a light on different mining processes and operations and their importance to society can eliminate some of the mystery that surrounds the industry. Image: Unsplash

Never too early to talk about mining

My instinct, which aligns with Clark’s, is that there’s an opportunity to bring communications into the frame much earlier in the mine lifecycle. In the same way that it’s never too early to think about environmental and social governance (ESG), it’s never too early to think about good communication – telling the story of what companies are doing and why.

“For junior miners, especially, life is expensive,” she told me. “Often these companies are focused on defining their resource, securing funding and surviving as an entity. The process can be long and sometimes, there’s little visibility as to when projects will start delivering returns. So, communications or storytelling doesn’t always come into the picture as early as it could.” 

The mining industry is all too aware that its reputation precedes it, and companies often worry their words could be misconstrued. However, by focusing communications exclusively on ‘safe’ topics, such as critical metals or the industry’s role in the energy transition, an opportunity is being missed to forge a deeper connection with society.

“Because the opposition narrative has been so effective at gaining traction in the media, there is some conservatism in messaging surrounding mining,” said Clark.

“The industry also has a keen awareness of risk, and companies are naturally cautious about what they say publicly. However, if you’re not letting people in, and showing your human face and how you can be relatable, then that can be a source of risk too. There’s a fine balance to be struck.”

The early stages of a project’s lifecycle are inherently riskier than the operational phase but, by talking about them more openly earlier on, there could be a chance to mitigate some of that risk.

For example, according to S&P Global, the average lead time for precious and base metals mines that began production between 2002 and 2023 was 15.7 years. Effectively explaining a project’s purpose to the wider world and communicating properly with stakeholders, rightsholders and opposers could help to ease opposition and expedite permitting.

“Good communication needs to be a day-zero investment,” said Clark. “Think about what it takes to gain a deep understanding of a mineral resource – the deposit needs to be mapped, drilled, analysed etc. – and the stakeholder landscape for each project must be similarly understood.

“The moment geologists set boots on the ground, communications professionals and social practitioners need to be there alongside them. For instance, there might be training for the geologists so that they can have an educated dialogue with community members.” 

She added that, once exploration starts, it’s important to shed some light on what’s happening: what does the process look like? How will environmental impacts be mitigated in the near and long term? How will developing this resource help the community? And how will it help the wider world? 

“There are obviously legal reasons why some aspects of a project cannot be discussed,” said Clark. “But there’s usually room for some creativity and colour.

“For smaller firms, it’s often only once a project reaches feasibility and permitting that PR efforts ramp up in a bid to attract investors and, by then, there’s been quite some time for resentments to build up amongst groups who may not be receiving the information they need or want. 

“The more open companies are as to their intentions, and the better they listen and communicate, the easier it will be to break down barriers and find ways to share in the value that mining creates and the industry’s efforts to be good resource stewards.”

 A one-size-fits-all approach will not work when developing a communications and messaging strategy. It’s important to consider each project and company’s unique circumstances. Image: Unsplash

More than just marketing 

Communications as part of a risk management strategy is an interesting topic. 

As a professional tool, communication is mainly considered the domain of PR, IR or marketing teams. However, making communications a more intentional part of other business functions at every level of a company could open many potential doors.  

“Communications shouldn’t be something that companies deploy only in response to crises,” said Clark. “Good communication strategies can prevent crises from happening in the first place. It’s not possible to turn off the faucet of bad press or opposing narratives completely, but it is possible to mitigate their impacts through clear evidence and commitments.”

She added that, when it comes to developing a communications and messaging strategy, particularly for stakeholder engagement, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. 

“Especially at the exploration stage, that strategy will be determined by the unique project circumstances,” she said. “The culture is different in every country, town or village, and understanding that and what constitutes as effective engagement requires being embedded in communities and listening. That’s what’s going to make a difference.” 

It’s worth remembering that community members aren’t just potential project supporters, they could also be future employees or investors.

In 2023, UK lithium producer, Cornish Lithium, raised £5.1 million through crowdfunding to support the development of its Trelavour hard-rock mining project in Cornwall, UK. The company did a lot of work upfront to engage with communities local to the site, and it’s likely that many members became investors.  

“Not many mining projects are crowdfunded,” said Clark. “That speaks to the company’s good efforts at communicating its core values and the value of its resource to get people excited and wanting to be a part of it.”

Everyone’s an ambassador

“What opportunities lie ahead if we can get this right?” I asked Clark.

“Well, firstly, communication is a valuable tool in obtaining a social licence, which is so important at every stage of a project’s lifecycle,” she said. “One result would be getting more projects successfully permitted and producing.

“But if the industry really harnesses this opportunity to change the perceptions around it, this will also get more people excited about investing and working in it. Both of those are long-term sustainability and viability issues.” 

Just as today’s perceptions of mining have been shaped by the past, tomorrow’s reputation is going to be built on what we’re doing today. 

“Making sure that those conversations are happening, that trust is being developed at every stage of a project from day zero, is foundational to the future success and sustainability of the mining industry,” Clark said. 

“It’s important that industry voices come together to speak up about the good work that’s being done, and that we amplify those positive actions and get conversations happening in places where they haven’t before. Effective communication builds trust and unlocks opportunities.”

This article is sponsored by Holbrook & Associates

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