Time to step up: resource sectors need Canada’s media now more than ever
[Editor's note: The author Bill Whitelaw is executive vice-president, Business Information Group, at Glacier Inc. Glacier is an InfoMine stakeholder.]
In this age of thought-leadership reports and white paper discussions that flutter around our lives like so much wedding confetti, there's one document out there that deserves immediate attention—particularly in Canada's resource sectors.
Energy, mining, forestry and agriculture—the industries that are the supporting vertebrae of Canada's economic backbone.
The sectors everybody increasingly seems to want to despise.
Every senior management team and board of directors in companies that derive their livelihoods from those various industries should make this particular report required strategic reading. It will give them profound insight into what happens when a business model collapses dramatically, especially in terms of public perception.
It directly impacts their own businesses, and it may guide them to proactively support the policy pushes necessary to bring back Canada's media sector from the brink of extinction.
Entitled The Shattered Mirror, it's the product of research and consultation by the Public Policy Forum. It critically examines the state of Canadian media, and the prognosis isn’t good.
The report paints a troubling picture of the diminished role Canadian media plays in mediating and shaping the discourses and narratives that define socioeconomic and political conversations.
Commissioned by Heritage Canada, The Shattered Mirror is more than a casual query into how digital forces are battering a largely analogue sector. It probes deeply into the costs our democracy and civil society face when institutions like newspapers are abandoned in droves.
Unfortunately, most resource executives are predisposed to crap on media. And I mean crap, in every smelly and repugnant sense of the word. There's no way to put it elegantly.
Indeed, "media" has been largely indicted by those same leaders for being part of, if not entirely responsible for, the poor public images sector leaders argue plague their respective industries.
What the resource sector "C-Suite" doesn't get is that it has been in some measure responsible for, even if unwittingly, silencing of the very voices whose now-diminished importance resulted in such horrible conditions of public perception. Each resource sector languishes under the burden of its own special version of "social licence…"
The mainstream media is partially to blame for its own problems, of course, but it's challenging to do “the job” when your business can barely keep its head above water. In recent times, you would think resource companies would be more emphatic.
What those resource companies and media organizations share is a common burden: being considered increasingly irrelevant by a society which generally has no clue as to how relevant the products are to our daily lives.
But at a time when resource players should have been embracing media, they instead chose (largely) to adopt adversarial relations, thinking they could bypass reporters and editorial boards. In short, they thought they could become content creators themselves. What was missing is the ability to set trusted context.
There's no free ride for context—and that's what separates mere "content" from quality journalism.
It's media context-setting that defines a progressive society's means of processing issues of major importance.
Those debates are not always pretty, of course, and they sometimes cause hurt feelings. But in most cases, they advance substantive issues to some form of resolution.
Put bluntly, Facebook does not give a rat's ass about Canada's oilsands industry, by way of one example. In fact, it's quite the opposite, in that Facebook provides a curation-free platform for the voices which shout in opposition to energy development (or farming, or logging, or mining) with no burden of actually proving the merits (or facts) of their perspectives.
No judgment. No context. No facts.
Fake news was around long before Donald Trump made it a thing—and it was hitting hard at Canada's resource bases.
It's a good bet that the editorial team at the Calgary Herald cares about oilsands development, though, because it cares about the way society works.
That doesn't mean the sector is guaranteed a free ride in terms of fawning features. Constructive and consistent coverage and analysis makes companies and sectors better. If the Herald staff today was what it was five years ago, the "coverage" would be more balanced, more deeply contextualized and more subtly nuanced. And we would have a better oilsands sector for it.
But every cancelled subscription and un-bought advertisement hobbles the Herald's ability to be doing what it ought to: curating, coordinating and yes, even mediating.
But there's another, more insidious, problem: strong (not social) media makes for a more literate public. And at a time when Joe Average Citizen needs to be learning about Canada's resource challenges, the teacher is phoning in sick and there's no substitute available.
There's another millennial twist worth noting: too many resource companies fell over themselves establishing social media strategies at the behest of millennial communicators who promised that tweets and Facebook postings would bring Canadians around.
In many cases, just the opposite happened. Corporate social media efforts were met with the opprobrium of a vocal few. In other words, what corporate (resource) Canada didn't get is that when it comes to discussing something rationally, social media is largely just a bullhorn for banality and bullshit.
The problem is that people tend to believe it because they distrust the way resource sector companies communicate.
Canada's resource sectors are now firmly behind the eight ball in terms of public opinion. And the very media institutions that might have helped them turn the corner in public opinion are on life support.
Here's betting resource bosses are longing for the good old days when a reporter with a notepad showed up. That's a lot simpler than dealing with the flow of Twitter dreck that seems to hypnotize the average Canadian the same way a rabbit hypnotizes a snake—before it gobbles the hapless creature whole.
As Joni Mitchell once crooned in Big Yellow Taxi, "…you don't know what you got 'til it's gone."
Fellow resource leaders: here's a link to the report. Download it and discuss it strategically. The media never was the enemy. You can do something about it.
Our future credibility depends on it.
About Bill Whitelaw
Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO of JWN, as well as executive vice-president, Business Information Group, at Glacier Inc. and managing director of Evaluate Energy, an affiliated energy analytics and research company based in London, UK.
He is a director on many industry sector boards, including the Canadian Heavy Oil Association, the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology and energy supply chain.