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Written by
Bridget Burgess

Bridget Burgess

We are living in a digital world where messages spread quickly and platforms that were designed for connection are being used to have political conversations and host public trials. For organizations looking to build social license, this new reality poses a number of potential challenges; however, it also brings opportunity.

What is social license?

The term “social license” is often used by governments and projects proponents; however, it is rarely understood. The term “license” implies stability, but social license is far more fluid and, often, temporary.

Social license is about acceptance. It sounds straightforward, but if you have ever tried to get a group of diverse stakeholders to agree on anything, you know that complete acceptance is difficult to achieve and can be revoked at any time for any reason. Building social license is about building trust, being authentic, and gaining legitimacy. This means engaging stakeholders early, listening to their thoughts and concerns, and connecting with them often using a number of platforms and tactics.

The new normal

The disrupted media landscape continues to change at a rapid pace. Everyone is a content creator and publisher, and nearly half of Canadians get their news from social feeds. This dynamic social environment has created a power imbalance where the vocal minority can have massive influence over policies and projects. An organized campaign on Twitter can be the difference between the government funding a project or opposing it during Question Period.

At the same time:

  • There is an increased expectation that decisions are to be made in a participatory manner;
  • Values and emotions can often outweigh facts in conversations;
  • There is diminishing trust in traditional media with the #FakeNews trend;
  • People are increasingly turning to places like Google and Reddit for information.

Given this level of complexity, social media should never be an afterthought when looking to build social license or form connections with communities—it should be a core component of every public engagement and stakeholder relations strategy.

Here are four tips to keep in mind:

Be authentic

Building social license is not about checking a box on a list of requirements. To truly build trust and legitimacy, you need to be open to hearing feedback and be committed to considering it when shaping your project. Before engaging, ask yourself what level of public participation you need to be successful as an organization. There is a distinct difference between informing the community and consulting or engaging the community—determine what you are looking to do before building a strategy or selecting tools and tactics.

Start with research

To be successful, it is essential to gain an understanding of the landscape—what is currently happening on the ground? What were the outcomes of past projects? What current projects are taking place? What can be learned from past successes and failures? Who are the influencers? What conversations are currently taking place on social media? By doing research in advance, you will gain insights to inform strategy and ensure your engagement and communications tactics are thoughtful.

Map out your rights-holders and stakeholders

Who matters most to you? What do they care about? What do they think about your organization or project? By identifying your key rights-holders and stakeholders, you will be able to craft communications that speak to what matters most to them and engage them in a meaningful way.

Remember that it is up to you to do the heavy lifting.

Building social license takes work—it isn’t enough to post a few tweets or set up a Mailchimp distribution list. If you want to be seen as a community partner, you need to build relationships and control the narrative associated with your organization or project. If you don’t tell your story, others will. By generating content, proactively sharing information, answering questions openly, and responding to issues rapidly and with care, you will be able to position yourself for success in the digital world.

The digital world is filled with opportunity for organizations who are looking to form meaningful connections and build credibility. There is no physical certificate or gold star for social license, because it is a verb, not a noun. Social license is about action and requires a number of tools, including social media.

As the world continues to digitize, organizations need to be prepared and adjust to the new normal. NATIONAL can help—from social media planning to public engagement and regulatory affairs, our team of experts is here for you anytime, anywhere.

——— Bridget Burgess is a former Consultant at NATIONAL Public Relations