• Lifa Communications

Why are mines NOT using digital community engagement tools?

The hopes amongst stakeholder engagement and communications professionals were that the lock-down and social distancing requirements of the COVID pandemic would finally bring stakeholder engagement into the fourth industrial revolution. Yet, apart from widespread WhatsApp groups, which are hard to monitor and control, we have yet to see large scale uptake of digital engagement in the mining industry.

What are the underlying reasons for this resistance to embracing and fully utilising digital engagement tools? Especially when considering that the mobile phone users in Africa (650 million) surpass those in Europe and the USA.

From our experience, here are four (non-exhaustive) reasons mining community engagement are not privy to digital transformation:

1. Fear of losing control

Often, in the context of social media use, mines find themselves in an interesting conundrum - people create fake accounts and post anything from false job ads to labour and community grievances. In order to deactivate these accounts, the Company has to create and use a legitimate account. When consulting about this we find it very insightful when mining executives state – “Yes, but what if people comment negatively on our posts?” Yet, the potential reputational fallout of not taking control of a fake account is exponentially worse than someone who laments on social media that they applied for but did not get a job. They will do that anyway, whether the mine has an account or not! Where there is a gap in company narrative - people will create their own narrative and ironically the fear of losing control over information, causes exactly that to happen!

2. Grossly understaffed community relations teams

Digital engagement should not and must never replace face to face engagement. It serves its purpose best, if used in unison with traditional engagement methods. It helps teams to reach individuals in the community that would not otherwise receive consistent, unfiltered messaging. Whilst implementing a large-scale digital stakeholder engagement program in 2017, one of the key findings we discovered was that gate keeping of information by structures in the community was prevented. It helps community relations teams to reach under the level of community structures and communicate the same consistent message to thousands of people in real time. This is not possible to implement if there are no dedicated manpower to manage digital communication. Already stretched community relations teams cannot be expected to add this to their job descriptions.

3. Perceptions about the use of digital technologies in host communities

Africa is known for leapfrogging innovations - the uptake of cell phones happened a lot quicker than landlines ever could and eventually stopped the installation of land-based communication systems all together. Africa's cell phone users are more numerous, more sophisticated and more agile than many mining decision makers might think. You don't have to look far to find reports that highlights facts and figures of mobile use in Africa - the Pew Research Centre has an extensive report on mobile phone use in Southern Africa. This report highlights that while mobile phone ownership is widespread, smartphone use growth is modest. While this should give stakeholder engagement professionals some insight as to which mobile channels to use, it does not mean that stakeholders without smartphones cannot be reached digitally. The power of USSD technology is clearly illustrated in the over 27.5 billion mobile money transactions that took place in 2020 (AfricaNenda, 2021). The question is why mining stakeholder engagement is not tapping into this simple technology to get more stakeholder participation?

4. Underutilisation of creative content

For those individual stakeholders with smartphones and for community relations teams with access to tablets or smartphones - simple, short explainer videos are one of the most effective ways of consistently communicating key messages. It’s surprising that mining companies will spend hundreds of thousands on wayside billboards, do not want to take the time and effort and produce a short explainer video about each of their frequently asked questions. Videos draw crowds in rural communities, video engages children (who are the conveyor belts of information into homes), videos cannot be misrepresented, changed or corrupted with fake information. Videos remain consistent every time a community relations officer plays it to the audience, and helps the team retain the message.

In our view, the drive to create the 'Mine of the Future' will be incomplete without true digital transformation in mining community stakeholder engagement. We want to see the real time engagement dashboard, next to the health and safety and productivity dashboards in the mine of the future control room. The technology exists, it's intention and will that are lacking.

Written by Lisl Pullinger, Lifa Communications Head of Sustainability