Katherine Teh-White is an expert in the methodology for maintaining a social licence to operate and she warns about the risk of denial, instead encouraging organisations to confront their ‘sleeper issues’ in order to survive.
In 2002 Katherine Teh-White founded Futureye, which provides market research, sustainable innovation, public policy, public affairs, risk communication, foresight and strategy and change management.
Speaking at the Conservation through Sustainable Use of Wildlife conference in Brisbane last year she revealed her own family tree contained a branch that failed to adapt to shifting public sentiment.
“My forebears have been in different industries that needed to adapt: some were furriers, and as you know, they didn’t adapt that well to animal welfare challenges as an industry,” she said.
“Fur and mink are just not as popular today as they used to be because they became something that stood not just for warmth and comfort, but being against animal welfare.”
Ms Teh-White argues that the concept of a social licence to operate is counter intuitive: a bit like balancing a feather and a rock, an outcome contrary to common-sense expectation.
“The reason people find it incredibly difficult to deal with, or in fact might even want to fight about it, is that it is a bit like trying to weigh up what the most important factors are that shape a set of decisions about how quickly you need to adapt to society.
“Social issues with game are complex because there are a lot of issues to be taken into account, but the risk you have is you will be seen through that same lens of animal welfare.”
In light of the damage done by a few during the opening weekend of Duck Seasons, particularly in Victoria, it is worth noting Ms Teh-White’s comments about ‘sleeper issues’.
Shooting early (out of season), indiscriminate and illegal hunting, failure to recover legally shot game and even leaving shell casings behind, fit the criteria of sleeper issues and her advice is that organisations ignore such issues at their peril.
“It is not denial of the problems that works, it is acknowledgement of the problems: dealing with and resolving those problems publicly and actually talking about them,” she said.
“If you have an issue where people think there isn’t a problem, but between yourselves you all realise there might be, we call that a sleeper issue. Sleeper issues were in the greyhound industry, they are in the live export industry and lot of other sectors.
“You can do the traditional corporate affairs strategy, which is keep your head down and say, well thank God 4Corners hasn’t been around here lately, or you can say we better manage those issues out ourselves. What are the adjustments you can make and the strategies you can use so that wildlife management, biodiversity, conservation of wildlife and use of wildlife are actually seen as harmoniously and effectively managed?”
A key to maintaining a social licence to operate is being aware of the bell curve of a social norm. In the early stages, where the general view of society isn’t normalised, the stock standard corporate affairs approach of attack or denial may work but as the community view solidifies, that approach will guarantee you lose, and keep losing.
“There is a tipping point,” Ms Teh-White said. “At the very top, the norming phase of the social maturity of a value set in society, there is no disagreement, there is alignment from society, and if you still think attacking, ignoring, denying will be effective you are wrong, you are just going to keep on losing.
“The sanctions get bigger, the consequences get bigger, and you end up being ruled out like the greyhound industry in New South Wales (since overturned), like live export potentially will be, like the fur industry has been. They are ruled out by society because they are not seen to adapt.”
Her advice is to have the strength as an organisation to recognise and think about challenges where there is a misfit between what you think and what society thinks and how to resolve those issues transparently and publicly to bring people along with you.
“Otherwise, raise a red flag now, you’ve got a problem,” she said.
“If you are going to deal with them, you have to deal with the emotional reaction people have to the issues because the emotional aspect of the risk is what drives perceptions. You can mitigate those, you can acknowledge and deal with them if you understand how important they are to public sentiment.”
Countering the key factors that drive outrage is important; trust is addressed through transparency, concerns about risk management by the attitude towards regulation, enforcement and control methods.
“The bottom line is you want to get to the position where the solution is acceptable to the public, the activists and you,” Ms Teh-White said.