Trust: easy to lose, hard to win back

Opinion: Winning trust back is an uphill battle

Opinion
The key to community trust is first understanding the community's concerns and issues, and then acting on these concerns.

The key to community trust is first understanding the community's concerns and issues, and then acting on these concerns.

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Eventually community expectations will be met, whether it be fast, slow, voluntarily or by force, writes Robbie Sefton.

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We've heard a lot about rural industries' "social licence" in the past few years. What is it?

In a word, it is trust. It is the community trusting that farmers, fishers and foresters share broader social values on matters like environmental stewardship, animal welfare and water resources.

When trusted, primary producers and their supply chains are largely left alone to pursue business.

If a sector is felt to be violating some aspect of society's expectations, things get more complicated.

Investors are scared off, and regulators and retailers called on to bring the sector into line.

Whether it happens fast or slow, voluntarily or under force, a realignment toward community expectations eventually takes place.

There can be large gaps in understanding between someone who shops in a supermarket, versus a person who is daily engaged in fishing, farming or forestry.

But on the whole, society is not unrealistic in its demands.

Animals should not needlessly suffer, environments not permanently despoiled, precious water not siphoned off to benefit a few.

Occasionally a particular action by a producer or producers will draw widespread condemnation and an entire industry will have its social licence questioned because of the actions of a few.

More often, though, a sector will pursue what seems like a good idea, adopt it widely, and then find a vocal segment of the community doesn't like its idea at all.

In today's shouty post-truth environment, it has become more complicated to restore trust - partly because communities are no longer what they were.

As people become more distrustful of the information they receive, they are less inclined to accept what they see in the mainstream media, and adopt the outlook of their chosen tribe - whether it is formed by peers, or group that appears to have shared values.

The key to community trust is first understanding the community's concerns and issues, and then acting on these concerns.

The actions of one industry undoubtedly affect the rest because the community sees environmental responsibility as something that is shared.

Rural industries need better intelligence about community expectations and more sophisticated approaches to deal with any breaches.

Fishers, farmers and foresters are generally trusted and respected by consumers, but we can expect maintaining social licence to become harder.

If there is a winning strategy for social licence, it would be "keep at it".

Find out what drives trust in your industry; be prepared to be transparent and vulnerable; use the insights you gain to focus on the community's priorities and drive industry action that is responsive, and demonstrate this action - then back to the beginning.

It's an ongoing cycle.

  • Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer, producing wool, meat and grains, and as managing director of national marketing communications company Seftons.

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