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Packaging the Beast: A Public Relations Lesson in Type Casting
by Bob Burton
"You are widely seen as being a bad actor. . . . How do you move from being a bad actor to being seen as a good actor, as a good guy?" Peter Sandman asked rhetorically, pacing as he addressed the 400-strong audience of PR and mine managers from Australia, the Philippines, South Africa, Papua New Guinea and the U.S.
It is a question that the Australian mining industry has been asking itself, with increasing desperation. The industry has spent millions of dollars on advertising campaigns to improve its image, with little success.
Sandman was billed as the star attraction for the Minerals Council of Australia's 1998 Annual Environmental Workshop in Melbourne, Australia. In a speech that Sandman could have delivered to many beleaguered companies, he candidly outlined the reasons for the industry's declining reputation.
The downward trend, he told the audience, corresponded with debate over the role that the Rio Tinto mine played in sparking civil war on Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea, the dumping of tailings in the Ok Tedi River (also in Papua New Guinea), the collapse of a tailings dam at another mine, and the push by one company to build a uranium mine in a national park against the wishes of the traditional Aboriginal owners.
"There is a growing sense that you screw up a lot, and as a net result it becomes harder to get permission to mine," Sandman said. The solution, he advised, lay in finding an appropriate "persona" for the industry.
The first option, he said, was to present the industry as a "romantic hero . . . which basically says, 'Well, the critics are wrong. I am not a bad actor. I'm terrific. the mining and minerals industry is what made the world the wonderful place that it is." He noted, however, that this approach had already failed when it was used as a basis for the mining industry's TV advertisements.
The next option, he suggested, would be to portray industry as a "misunderstood victim. . . . You feel you are David and [environmentalists] are Goliath." But this approach was equally unlikely to succeed. "No one thinks you are David," he said bluntly. "You look like Goliath, especially in Australia. 'Misunderstood victim' doesn't play very well."
A third option would be to present the industry as a "team player," but Sandman told the miners that "you can't get from 'bad actor' to 'team player' without pausing at some other image. As a characteristic of human nature, I don't think people can go from thinking you are bad guys to thinking you are good guys, without pausing somewhere in the middle."
One intermediate position, he suggested, is the role of "reformed sinner," which "works quite well if you can sell it. . . . 'Reformed sinner,' by the way, is what John Brown of BP has successfully done for his organization. It is arguably what Shell has done with respect to Brent Spar. Those are two huge oil companies that have done a very good job of saying to themselves, 'Everyone thinks we are bad guys. . . . We can't just start out announcing we are good guys, so what we have to announce is we have finally realised we were bad guys and we are going to be better.' . . . It makes it much easier for critics and the public to buy into the image of the industry as good guys after you have spent awhile in purgatory."
For the Australian mining industry, however, Sandman thought that even "reformed sinner" would be a bit of a stretch. It would be a "tough sell," he explained, because "the public is rather sceptical when companies say they have reformed."
Fortunately, Sandman had another "middle" role that the industry could adopt on its path to salvation. "There is a fifth image that I think works by far the best," he said, "and that is the 'caged beast.' What is the persona of this 'caged beast'? 'Useful, perhaps even indispensable, but dangerous.' This is the image I would recommend to you. If you want to come back from 'bad actor' to 'team player,' the easiest path back is to make a case that you would continue to be bad actor if you could, but you can't, because the cage works."
Why should the industry portray itself so negatively? Because, Sandman said, it was a "saleable image" that at least would convey the idea that the industry was no longer harmful. "You are behaving much better, not because you want to, not because you have become the Mother Theresa of the mining companies, but because NGOs have been successful, regulators have been successful, your neighbors have been successful, the entire society has been successful in persuading you at least that you will make more dollars if you reform."
Ironically, therefore, the secret to victory for industry is to persuade its critics they can "win the fight instead of trying to beat them."
"You have two basic postures" Sandman advised. "Either you are free to rape and pillage as you want to, but fortunately you don't have the taste for it. Or, you have a taste for it and you might continue to rape and pillage if you could, but fortunately you can't get away with it any more." he said.
"I believe the second is true, and I am certain the second is saleable," Sandman concluded. "I can't imagine why you keep claiming the first except that it nurtures your self-esteem, it reduces your outrage. Once again, whose outrage do you want to mitigate? The critics or yours? Do you want to get even or get rich?"