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Perspectives | Issue 4

Navigator’s folio of ideas, insights and new ways of thinking

The Quest for Social Licence

November 24, 2015
The Quest for Social Licence - White Dove

As the sophistication of stakeholders has increased and the use of communications technologies has become commonplace, more complex and in-depth programs of research have become critical tools.

The term ‘social licence’ gets batted around a great deal these days, particularly among those involved in developing communications and activation campaigns in support of major projects and initiatives. It refers to the processes by which a company or organization seeks the permission to proceed with a project that affects a wide range of communities and requires their broad-based support.

But how—especially given the range of stakeholders, subgroups, special interests and even individuals who demand to have their voices heard on almost any initiative—is social licence attained? And how can the risks to reputation, brand and budgets be mitigated along the way?

In the last few years, the rise of social media and the creation of single-issue online communities and alliances have added to the public noise around social licence. These factors have successfully stalled projects and driven up their costs significantly.

They have also negatively influenced the political agenda. After all, few politicians have any appetite for championing projects that divide their voter base.

To contain the influence of special interest groups, companies and organizations are increasingly using opinion research
to gauge public opinion and manage stakeholder environments.
Opinion polls that simply determine support for or opposition to a particular initiative are no longer enough. As the sophistication of stakeholders has increased and the use of communications technologies has become commonplace, more complex and in-depth programs of research have become critical tools.

A well-executed program of research focuses on three main objectives:

1. Determining perceived benefits and disadvantages/risks of a project among all identifiable stakeholders, including the population as a whole, local and community residents, interveners, special interest groups, allies and opponents.
2. Measuring the credibility of all stakeholders and the extent to which each can or might influence the public debate.
3. Tracking of messages to ensure all communication is effective—to gauge the influence of detractors’/opponents’ messages and to measure how messages are received by the public and large and targeted segments of the population.

One important aim of research is to identify the likely benefit of a project. Often such benefits are economic, particularly if a project creates long-term or permanent jobs, improves a community’s infrastructure or results in new opportunities for a community or stakeholder to generate revenue.

In most instances, both qualitative and quantitative research is essential to gaining a clear understanding of a project’s benefits and drawbacks.

Quantitative research isolates key benefits, as well as what drives support and opposition. Subsequent analysis not only reveals what influences positions, it identifies the arguments or messages that defuse opposition and build support.

Qualitative research—including focus groups, citizen panels or one-on-one in-depth interviews—uncovers the nuances of benefits and opposition, the caveats associated with support, and how benefits are articulated or described.

In Navigator’s experience, social licence is only achieved when project advocates can demonstrate that their position is reasonable, can make it comprehensible to the public and stakeholder groups, and can effectively neutralize or undercut opponents’ views. Organizations and companies must understand who speaks with authority and credibility—both for and against a project—to calibrate messages and then find the right spokesperson to deliver them.

Finally, campaigns need follow-up. Campaigns that fail to track and measure opinion over the longer term often fail to take into account issues or viewpoints as they emerge and recede. Responding to public hearings, local debates and social media campaigns that influence public thinking requires flexibility.

Research tracking should be done in tandem with effective media and social media monitoring programs to isolate the specific messages or combination of messages that are influencing opinion among key segments.

Well-designed and effectively executed programs of research can be essential to the success of protracted and challenging projects. If knowledge is power, then knowing and understanding the full gamut of opinions is essential to attaining social licence.

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