Sucked into the Vortex: Why Adani’s PR strategy failed them

August 24 2017

Hugo Hodge


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By Hugo Hodge

Adani’s traditional public relations strategy has forced them into the vortex of public outrage says Futureye’s Managing Director Katherine Teh-White after recent opinion polling has drawn a picture of strong public opposition in Liberal heartlands to the proposed Carmichael mine.

New polling of seven electorates belonging to federal government front benchers, including the Prime Minster, has revealed strong opposition to a federal subsidised loan for the mega-mine project.

The Australia Institute poll found 51 – 71 percent of respondents opposed the idea of the government giving Adani a one billion dollar tax payer subsidised loan for its connecting rail line while 17 – 28 percent approved it.

In all electorates, more people supported a moratorium on new coal mines than opposed.

“Despite a push by some conservatives for coal subsidy polices, these results – in key blue-ribbon Liberal seats – show strong opposition to that very idea,” Executive Director of The Australia Institute, Ben Oquist said.

These results came just days after Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has again ruled out funding for the Adani project and reports out of India suggest local banks are reluctant to help raise the final $2 billion for the $16.5 billion project.

All of Australia’s Big Four banks have now ruled out funding the project and environmental activists claim a total of 22 banks, including internationals Deutsche and HSBC, have ruled out lending.

There is growing pressure on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to rule a taxpayer-funded $1 billion concessional loan to Adani which could breach its Investment Mandate, despite ex-Minster for Resources Matt Canavan strongly supporting the proposal.

Yet Adani has been watering down the claims of funding problems. Recently a spokesperson questioned if the critics were so certain the project was not financially viable, why were they spending so much time and money trying to attack it?

The simple answer: because attacking the mine has made it financially unviable.

“Adani has run a very traditional public affairs strategy but given the level of concerns people have about climate change and the sophistication of activists, particularly against new coal, political patronage and community relations alone is insufficient to earn a social licence these days for a major project,” says Katherine Teh-White.

“Adani has fallen into significant reputational challenge where the financers and government are being challenged for supporting the mine,” she says.

The anti-Adani campaign has been strong and unrelenting. The Australian Conservation Foundation coordinated a mass phone-in to Malcolm Turnbull’s office to oppose handing over public money to the project.

Greenpeace have unleashed a sustained public attack on Commonwealth Bank and the StopAdani Alliance’s three year campaign targeting Westpac saw the bank distance itself from Adani, the group claim.

Adani and the government have fought back too, stirring activists with provocative statements and calls to arms which only fuel the activists and justify their mandate.

It’s the third stage of an escalating risk controversy where companies resort to attacking and impugning opponents which only draws previously uninvolved people into the vortex.

“The traditional way of approaching communications when there are people that disagree is to defeat the opponents, embrace the supporters, and convince the straddlers through demonstrating the benefits of the project and industry,” says Katherine Teh-White.

“But this isn’t how it works when outrage is involved. If you’re not properly responding to the opponents and addressing their concerns, you’re actually giving them strength and attracting more people to the argument,” she says.

The Australian public has seen Adani ignore activists’ valid concerns, about the future of the Great Barrier Reef and our commitment to the Paris Agreement.

The best approach focusses on the ‘highly involved’ stakeholders – those who are, or are likely to be, the most affected, passionate, and/or influential. Understanding their concerns using a risk communications lens and responding to those concerns the right way can prevent their outrage from growing, and build a more solid base of support.

Rather than focusing on beating them with louder support, addressing their concerns early on limits the need to fight.

It may be a little too late for the Adani project with a fresh legal case looming over an endangered black-throated finch which might just be the canary that signals the end for this coal mine.

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