Modern communications professionals and lobbyists aren’t recruited to tell businesses how to be likeable. Obviously. That’s for softies and spendthrifts.
If the client tries too hard, serious money and credibility will be wasted. If the client is too standoffish, his or her pet project will be thrown to the wolves. Fortunately, today’s image advisors have the tools to reveal exactly how far to go.
If the client gets it right, the corporate gamble of his or her career will secure a “social license.”
This new corporate public affairs planning tool creates a new head office imperative: major projects, especially in the unsightly resource sector, must not only be profitable and lawful in every respect, but attractive — the locals as well as the project’s government overseers must anticipate direct benefits.
Conceivably, agreeable government relations could be served by this vague new corporate aspiration. Politicians like to cut ribbons on popular projects — less so on those that bitterly divide friendly voters. So, indirectly, this new business tool is political.
Without any resistance or reservation, however, this vague corporate consideration is being turned into a public obligation as well. Aspiring prime ministers, incumbent premiers, and even a retired politician that graces the top of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Canada declare that oil pipelines from Alberta must secure a “social license” along with all normal rights of way, including the blessing of all relevant regulators.
Jim Prentice of CIBC claims that the Northern Gateway oil pipeline can get a "social license" through “principled dialogue.” Chantal Hebert passes on that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s senior advisors think Trudeau can actually swap his refusal to give Gateway his support in return for a "social license" for an alternative oil pipeline across eastern Canada. Typically, the Leader of the Opposition, Thomas Mulcair, is clearer and more ambitious, announcing:
“The fact is, in the 21st century, a social license is every bit as important as a regulatory license — if not more.”
Without spelling out what a tradable, affordable, public interest "social license" would look like, gentlemen on the sidelines of tough decisions are telling pipeline owners and duly-elected governments that they can’t get to "yes" without one.
Stephen Harper, your heart too will swell if you see one.
But, in the meantime, don’t cut any more corners. You weren’t being rational when you admitted that you’d like to see that pipeline built: you were ignoring evidence, warring with science, and denigrating our enviable and independent regulatory institutions. However, if you now accept their findings without getting a "social license," you’ll be damned for lacking a heart. You’ll be unfit to govern. Dead birds and putrid fish will follow you to the ends of your days.
Sadly, this 21st century catch-22 could stymy Canada as well Stephen Harper.
Should any publicly traded company in the future invest its resources in any controversial business solution if — on top of existing financial, legal, scientific, and jurisdictional considerations — it would also have to secure a "social license" from any number of voices with the means to intimidate local politicians and hire a lawyer?
Will government planners be any braver?
American politicians fight over everything, reconcile, and lurch forward. Canada’s politicians are smoother. Americans sharpen their differences by drinking Red Bull when reading their Constitution. Canadians cloud their differences by concocting euphemisms. Here we go again?