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How the mining, palm oil, pulp & paper industries continues to mis-manage its PR

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Dan Edwards
Dan Edwards has been with Alpha Southeast Asia since 2013 and edits both print and online versions of the magazine. He wrote the award-winning story ‘spotlight on unclarity’ soon as after joining Alpha Southeast Asia. He is based in Singapore.

The case for moving away from PR agencies that are repeatedly outmatched by the challenges Indonesia faces

After over twenty years in publishing with the last 13 years alone as the Publisher of a regional institutional investment journal in Hong Kong, it is hardly an open secret editors avoid most PR agencies like the plague, do not read over two-thirds of the press releases received, however much PR agencies chase editors for coverage.

To gain proper control of the narrative in the mainstream and specialists media therefore, the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries should consider minimising the use of PR agencies, an industry that is known for its overpaid propagandists, news editors more often than not, ignore.

As a case in point, it is worth asking why is it that the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries has collectively spent millions on PR and advocacy groups over the last decade yet issues such as acid mine drainage, deforestation, orangutans, haze, among others, remain key sticking points still uncomfortably associated with the industry? How exactly has the external PR industry helped?

From knee-jerk reactions, recoiling from attacks to scrambling to overcome the onslaught of negative campaigning, PR agencies on the payroll of the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries have done little else except belatedly putting out PR fires relating to distressing images of destroyed aquatic ecosystems, felled forests, dead orangutans and displaced indigenous people.

In fact, one of the key rules of running a successful PR campaign is to seem like you do not need one. Except the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries have time and again reiterated in full public display how it desperately needs one, putting itself on an irreversible backfoot.

Put simply, if everyone knows you have a PR agency handling your ‘crisis and issues management’, you start off severely disadvantaged in the war of narratives, as oil & gas veterans with hindsight will confirm, partially explaining, why the perception of the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries is as poor as it is, if not worse, for the last decade or so.

Then there are numerous news reports that have raised the curtain on how the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries has kept itself busy hiring PR firms and certain advocacy groups masquerading as think thinks but with dubious governance records.

Meanwhile, one is hard press to find similar reports of PR agencies representing fossil fuel producers, soybean companies and other anti-palm oil interest groups (even though they surely exist) thus, indicating how the current model of relying on PR agencies so  openly by the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries is faulty, if not an utterly miserable failure. Failure in the sense of not being able to gain control of the media narrative despite the burgeoning budgets being allocated to PR agencies and lobbyists.

Instead, it could be argued the use of some PR agencies and lobbyists by the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries has on the contrary, inflicted further reputational damage to how the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries continues to be viewed today.

Such damage is of course, not just limited to disastrous examples of companies like FBC Media, the PR agency hired by the palm oil industry in 2014 that was caught using highly questionable methods such as exploiting the use of media assets at BBC and CNBC, using biased third party champions and deliberately misleading the public regarding palm oil.  Or the equally catastrophic Open Letter to Alan Oxley from WGI & ITS, penned by a group of scientists in 2010, meticulously unmasking his green washing attempts to obfuscate facts, let alone the 2011 palm oil TV advertisements that was accused of promoting false statements about the virtues of palm oil and thus, banned by the British Advertising Standards Authority, creating another PR backfire of sorts, among others.

Worst of all, these and other litany of PR fiascos were extensively covered by activists, scholars, academia and the media. The resulting PR backlash also no doubt contributed to the already compounding negative perception of the respective industries, instead of the opposite desired effect, that is, positive publicity, for which, they were presumably hired for in the first place.

This is precisely why, considering the uphill perception challenges the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries is facing today, large key companies need to think afresh and consider minimising the use of PR agencies if not, minimise the publicity around the appointment and use of one.

Instead, the industry should consider hiring former journalists or senior writers who understand the mechanisms of how a given story is researched, developed, written and edited, so as to help play a key role in reframing the international media narrative on the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries and help turn the tide on the one-sided negative opinion of these respective industries today.

As an example, when viewed from the perspective of most experienced editors who curate news for a living, it becomes quite obvious the palm oil industry should first and foremost, stop talking about how palm oil is widely used in all the products. From shampoos to chocolate, almost every article and news broadcast habitually includes an obvious introduction of how palm is found in many products we use every day, in some ways, reinforcing the myth how rising demand will speed up deforestation.

Instead, there is a need to shift the focus 180 degrees and strongly emphasise the negative implications if we all had to rely on other vegetable oil alternatives such as rapeseed, soy or sunflower fields and others, that come with a much higher cost to end consumers. Cost not just in monetary terms but its negative impact on wildlife, deforestation, different natural ecosystems and species and most disturbingly, moving the problems to other unprepared regions, communities and biodiverse areas instead of looking for sustainable solutions. Solutions that the palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia are today openly exploring including traceability, RSPO certification, among others.

As an example, through innovative advances in satellite monitoring, we now have more unprecedented knowledge of our forests and a growing number of nodes within the oil palm supply chain, let alone a growing list of stand-alone positive actions by the palm oil industry. However, none of these individual actions are adding up to a whole or widely known because PR agencies are busy putting out fires regarding what the palm oil industry is not doing, as opposed to effectively communicating what it is doing, resulting in the calamitous false perception of a black hole of inaction on the part of the palm oil industry.

This needs to change and this is why it is absolutely critical to build a direct network (and not via PR agencies) of journalists, columnists, bloggers and social media influencers based in Asia, Europe and the United States, that can either help shine the light on the anti-palm oil interest groups and provide a multitude of platforms to the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries and its various stakeholders, to voice its understated ESG side of the story.

However, instead of relying on government statistics alone or promoting half-truths or crafting PR talking points against NGOs claiming they are purely raising climate change concerns to secure their own funding or avoiding talk on the rights of indigenous landowners or broadly claiming the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries is alleviating poverty through wealth creation – all under the guise of research, there is an urgent need today, to redevelop an honest approach, in discussing the most uncomfortable issues, out in the open facing the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries, by as many – qualified, credible writers and former journalists – as possible.

From how the key players and stakeholders in Indonesia and Malaysia are vigorously working on resolving pressing issues such as, scaled adoption of sustainability certification, the use of satellite technology to improve traceability and the importance of supporting a workforce of over 17 million people within the palm oil and pulp and paper industries to biofuels potentially replacing  petroleum-based options as an effective alternative for fossil fuels, let alone how oil palm uses nine times less land, and requires significantly fewer pesticides and chemical fertilisers than coconut, corn or any other vegetable oil source. In other words, tilting the conversation editorially to less explosive but no less important issues, to help soften (reframe) the overall image of the palm oil  as well as pulp and paper industries, as an example.

Put simply the best way to engage an audience is to ensure the values that define a brand is clear and relatable. Stated in editorial terms, the best way to impress the readership is to write in a style that connects with the reader. At present, this can’t be said of the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries, unlike the meat and dairy industry that have spent decades and hundreds of millions distinguishing themselves over time, by highlighting their green, eco and successfully rebranded ESG sourcing practices.

In the end, the critical turning point can only be reached if there is enough credible material that demonstrates with prima facie plausibility what the anti-mining, anti-palm oil, anti-pulp and paper industries interest groups are doing is ultimately contrary to human rights norms and international law.

Meanwhile, the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries needs to recognise changing the perception is not a box-ticking exercise. Instead, it requires an out-of-the-box mindset shift, starting with gaining control of the global narrative on the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries, as part of a multi-dimensional counter strategy. This, in order to overcome the collective action dynamics of the divergent anti-mining, anti-palm oil, anti-pulp and paper industries interest groups.

Change of course, can’t happen overnight. Given the vexing problems and layers of components involved, winning the narrative is not about finding the off switch since there are many tectonic plates that require shifting to effect real measurable change, blind spots such as the profitless role PR agencies play in the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries, that at present, is inhibiting any progress in changing the status quo.

This should be the starting point as well as the metaphorical winning tape the mining, palm oil, pulp and paper industries should aim for. Anything less is to remain with an unending backfoot.

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