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The challenge of addressing community outrage

With the board approval of Indian mining giant Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, the issue of community outrage, and the challenges it can present to a project, has come to the fore.

The mine has faced persistent community opposition from a range of stakeholder groups – green groups, farmers, nationalists and the Australian community more broadly, who have concerns about the effect of a large new coal mine on global carbon emissions.

While not all undertakings galvanise public opinion in the way the Adani mine has, there are lessons for all businesses from Adani’s experience. Because whether it’s a small residential development or a huge infrastructure project, too much pollution or too many cars parked on the street, communities often respond to anything which encroaches on their amenity or values with outrage.

For many businesses, managing community concerns is an essential part of doing business. But how can you cope when your well thought out engagement strategy doesn’t go to plan and you’re faced with an ‘angry mob’.

Regardless of your personal views surrounding the controversial Carmichael coal mine, it nevertheless provides insight into what to do, and what not to do, in the face of community outrage.

Pick your battles

An important step in managing community outrage is understanding that not all disagreements or community grievances will be resolved as a result of your engagement process. Communities are made up of individuals – individuals with their own motives, beliefs and agendas. Even the best engagement campaign is unlikely to meet the complete approval of all relevant stakeholders.

Understand who you can successfully engage with, and work at building a relationship with these people. It isn’t worthwhile banging your head against a brick wall trying to win over the most stubborn members of the community.

Looking at Adani’s response, it’s clear they anticipated community outrage before they even began their project.

By developing durable relationships with key influencers – state, federal and local MPs, business leaders and regional development advocates, they have been able to progress their project without addressing the issues raised by some of their most vocal critics.

While it is nice to have broad community support, ask yourself whether you really need it.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

Faced with a crisis, it is tempting to throw your community engagement playbook out the window and do whatever you can to combat the outrage. A knee jerk reaction can, however, do more harm than good, and you should refer back to your original strategy for guidance.

Can you deescalate the situation with engagement tools you already have? What lines of communication have you established with the community? Can you call on influential stakeholders to make your case? Can you just weather the storm of outrage and still deliver your project?

This is the real strength of Adani’s approach, they’re dogged commitment to their engagement strategy. Realising early on the futility of trying to win support for the project from vocal opponents, they have continued to toil away at their target stakeholders – allowing them to continue to progress their project.

Listen and act

While some outrage can be ignored, and some can be resolved through your existing strategy, sometimes you’ve got to face the problem head on and find new solutions. The best approach in this case is to stop and listen, genuinely listen, to the concerns being raised by the community.

While you may not be able to quell every anxiety, the act of listening, of engaging, with communities is an ameliorating one in itself. Often all that people want is a chance to air their concerns and see that someone has taken them into consideration. Through the process of listening, reflecting the concerns of the community and doing what you can to address them, you may find the rage dissipates and acceptance takes its place.

While the realities of the Adani project and the dynamics of the current political landscape may have sealed the project’s fate in terms of community outrage, other businesses need not face the same level of rancour.

With an effective plan, based on genuine engagement, businesses can avoid and manage community outrage and deliver successful projects.