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25 January 2011

Gerry Brownlee and the PR of spouting whales


Mining minister Gerry Brownlee's plan to prospect in National Parks and reserves was inept, but it has highlighted the need for miners to improve their public relations.

Brownlee kicked a hornet's nest last year when he announced that the government would be assessing the country's mineral resources - national parks and treasured forest parks included. It triggered a 50,000-strong protest march in Auckland and an eventual government backdown.

Now the proposal has been described by Peter Atkinson, managing director of NZX-listed Heritage Gold, as inept and mystifying.

Truth is, the announcement also mystified Brownlee's Cabinet colleagues, who first heard of the proposal when it was discussed on Morning Report the next day. Brownlee had neglected to raise the issue at Cabinet and didn't realise that it conflicted with National's Blue-Green Vision which, according to a reliable source, he hadn't even read.

Mr Atkinson said the government compounded its blunder by suggesting 705 hectares of Great Barrier Island could be removed from protected status to allow gold and silver mining.

"If you wanted to turn off the biggest electorate in the country, that was the best place to go to," he said. "No-one is interested in Great Barrier in the (mining) industry, and they said, `Let's open it up for mining'."

Heritage chairman Geoff Hill was reported by BusinessDay as saying: "Investor interest in mining is something that Heritage has lived with for about 20 years. It waxes and wanes."

To some observers, Hill may have sounded philosophical, but to WHAM ears Hill was sticking to the industry script. Like some other resource-based industries, corporate miners have a philosophy of keeping their public profile to a minimum, in the belief they won't be noticed by the country's green-tinged mass media.

As if it was so easy. This attitude, which some senior executives sum up with the aphorism "it's the spouting whale that gets harpooned" is hopelessly flawed.

Mines have to apply for public resource consents. They have accidents and subsidences, and ministers making ill-advised announcements.

Media coverage of mining from time to time is therefore inevitable and major players in the sector should prepare for it. They should be building up the bank of public goodwill they will need when things go wrong or whenever a new mining proposal faces organised opposition.  

We would have thought it blindingly self-evident, but waiting until the tailing dam bursts to start convincing the public that you're the good guys is too late.  

It's not as if mining doesn't have a good story to tell. The Martha gold mine at Waihi for instance has an environmental footprint similar to the average dairy farm and arguably has fewer off-site effects. It has more than 300 direct employees and generates some $80 m revenues each year - most of which go into the local economy. (We're guessing here, latest figures are hard to find.) It's a major tourist attraction in its own right.

Newmont Mining, which owns Martha, has an excellent community relations programme in Waihi, but tries to be invisible at a national level. The wider industry would be well-advised to follow its local template while cranking up a positive story at a national level. With Gerry Brownlee having done such a good job of motivating the opposition, now is not too late to start.

- Trevor Walton

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