I recently had the pleasure of travelling throughout the Surat Basin in south west Queensland with a client of Articulous for a week, facilitating community information sessions. The client is involved in Coal Seam Gas (CSG) projects and this engagement program was to provide an update of drilling and operation activities and the company’s plans for the region over the next 12 months. This was a starting point for the next wave of engagement activity and an opportunity for people to meet face to face.

However, it was, in effect, providing little more information than that which could have been provided via a media release or a web update and it’s at this point for me that things get interesting. The company instead opted to conduct a week long tour of the region and actively sort to engage with their most vocal opponents. In taking that approach I witnessed an increased, albeit at times begrudgingly, respect from both sides of the argument.

Just to paint a picture, the sessions themselves were conducted as either traditional open house or drop-in style sessions or drop in sessions with a meeting component included with an opportunity for public questions and answers sessions. The decision on which approach to take for each town was made in relation to the scale of activity and the indicated levels of interest from each community in lead up. In the end there were five community sessions conducted. On average there were about 40 community members at the Q&A type sessions which lasted for approximately 30 minutes after the presentations.

Questions at times were very heated but the spokespeople answered questions respectfully and where further discussions were required other team members were available to answer individual’s questions on their own properties. There were a few key lessons that I took away from that week that I thought were worth sharing, purely from a practical perspective:

  1. Just because it’s tough doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go and talk with your community: There was no question that there were hostile community members but fronting up and talking and listening builds credibility and demonstrates respect for differing perspectives.
  2. You can effectively explain technical matters simply. It just takes work. Speak factually but check in to make sure your community members understand. Presentations for this project were of a technical nature because there was a huge array of technical levels in the sessions, however good presenters know that drawing effective analogies is important to developing understanding. Don’t just say it and sit down!
  3. Sometimes just informing is okay. I have been of the opinion that informing on the IAP2 Spectrum can be a bit of a cop out but having just witnessed it in action on a large scale I realised that sometimes it does truly meet a community’s needs. Access to knowledge can be the start of building trust, however rarely does this occur in isolation.
  4. Never underestimate the value of sharing information and listening and responding to concerns.

In an industry that can be controversial and has in the past received criticism, not all of it undeserved, for its approach to communities this was an eye opener. It was eye opening, not because of any level of innovation in the approach to engagement, as to be honest, that wasn’t particularly unique, it was different because the company sorts out its communities to share information, provide a clear path for future direction and clearly articulate how any permeations from that path may impact every community member.

Critically, the company also provided a high level of resources both from people power and people with technical expertise to support the activity. This should be a blueprint for how complex industries should relate to their communities.

(Photo Credit: Marty Jelinek)