Our Way of Life / Leading the way with Penny Clark-Hall
Following on from her commentary in an earlier issue of latitude, Penny Clark-Hall gives us a closer look at the term ‘Social Licence to Operate’ and explains why you need to know what it means.
When it comes to Agriculture, both globally and nationally, the urban-rural divide and Social Licence to Operate (SLO) are very much at the forefront of farming dialogue as consumers demand more transparency around farming practices. In a space that is becoming more and more legislated and regulated, the idea of social licence and the growing urban rift are often met with scepticism and resistance by farmers who are already feeling overwhelmed, and agribusinesses that are struggling to catch up and align their business protocols with the values of their stakeholders.
This is where Penny Clark-Hall, with a public relations and agricultural background, set out to research and find tangible solutions around social licence, and concrete ways agribusinesses can implement change. Penny was accepted for the prestigious Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme, which focuses on developing leaders in all areas of the agriculture sector. As part of the six-month course, participants conduct a research project based on their interests, passions and concerns within the primary industry. Penny chose Social Licence to Operate (SLO) for her project. ‘The purpose of my paper was to give the industry some tangible solutions, rather than seeing social licence as a grey area,’ says Penny. ‘It’s debated a lot whether it’s a “thing” and tends to stop at a high-level conversation that doesn’t drill down into what can be done about it. I wanted to get a meaningful understanding of SLO so we could have worthwhile and insightful conversations that would have actionable outcomes.’
The term ‘Social Licence to Operate’ was coined by a top-level Canadian mining executive in the late 1990s in response to community resistance around mining operations. The term, however, is relevant to all industries as sustainability, environmental and social impact, Penny says, has become more important to consumers. In New Zealand, in the wake of the ‘Dirty Dairying’ campaign, SLO is most often associated with agriculture almost by default. In the past, there has been some debate over what defines social licence, or even if it in fact exists at all; which Penny clarifies in her research. ‘Social licence is based on your stakeholders’ perceptions of your operation: whether it is trustworthy, whether it does what it says it does, whether they align with their values. It’s about values and trust. The trust is fed off whether your values align, and when they don’t, trust breaks down. There’s a legal licence and a social licence, and most industries and businesses stop at the legal licence. That used to be enough, but now stakeholders and consumers have a say and are an extension of your business.’
The economic growth cycle has an impact on consumer priorities and values. ‘When you have economic strength and security, your values evolve into higher-level values because you don’t have to worry about survival anymore,’ Penny says. ‘When your country is economically struggling, industry tends to get a pass – as society focuses on core needs such as the economic security industry generates. However, once they have that, society’s values evolve into higher-level values such as equality, health and wellbeing, and industries struggle to adjust at the same pace.’
When it comes to regaining trust, Penny says it’s all about understanding who your stakeholders are. ‘You have to understand what’s important to your stakeholders and how you impact that,’ Penny says. ‘It’s a relationship that requires give and take. One cannot exist without the other; it’s about respect and empathy. We don’t have a business
without stakeholders and customers are a part of that; social licence is about switching the mentality from a “them and us” approach to an inclusive one where they can be an asset to your business by ensuring you are relevant and acceptable to your community and market.’
Penny’s business as New Zealand’s first Social Licence Consultancy seeks to help agribusinesses and farmers regain their social licence through workshops, strategy and events such as speaking at the recent Grow Boma NZ Agri Summit where Penny was one of 30 national and international speakers.
Penny has run a workshop on their farm property, Kaiwara, in North Canterbury where she lives with her husband George, and their one-year-old daughter Eva. The 1300-hectare farm is split in two, with George running the sheep and beef side, including the Kaiwara Angus stud, and his brother Doug running the Dairy operation.
George and Penny also own 330 hectares in Waiau, used as a runoff block for dairy grazing, and fattening their own sheep and beef. With environment and a raft of other issues being played out in the media, the primary sector has a lot of work to do in building back the high level of trust and approval it once had. In the age of social media and internet, the difficulty lies somewhat in the information gathered by consumers, and whether that information is accurate and unbiased. ‘If you’re trying to inform and convince a group of stakeholders that don’t have a direct physical relationship with you,’ Penny says, ‘it’s very hard because you don’t know what rabbit holes they are going down in terms of the information they are getting. There’s that old saying: When you are explaining, you are losing.
‘What we can do is build better connections with our stakeholders and consumers and change their experience with where their food comes from. Being our authentic selves in a transparent way fills the unknown gap about who food producers really are and what they are doing to the environment. We’ve lost a lot of empathy for each other, which I find incredibly sad because we are all just humans who care deeply and are trying to get it right.’
‘The purpose of my paper was to give the industry some tangible solutions, rather than seeing social licence as a grey area.’