Wak­ing the sleeper is­sues

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 com­mon­sense 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.

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