The concept of the ‘social license’ and what it means for the seafood industry

Posted by Alex Caveen on 04 July 2016

Whether it is mining, forestry or fishing the use of law and evidence based reasoning used to be enough for the consent of an industry operation.

It is however no longer. Reputation is everything.

In an increasingly interconnected world the canvassing of public opinion can have a major influence on your business's activities. NGOs can rapidly mobilise public pressure through media campaigns to influence the activities of the whole of industry. A recent seafood example comes to mind - Hugh's Fish Fight. A positive reputation means you are trusted and valued by your customers, also granting you the wider social acceptance required for the long-term viability of your operations.

This is where the concept of 'social license' comes to the fore. Having little understanding of the term I attended an industry workshop last week run by Dr Kate Brooks. Simply, it entails a business or wider industry identifying the common values between you and your stakeholders (including the general public in the widest sense) and then proactively engaging with them to achieve a common goal.

This can range from simply informing stakeholders, to collaboration and forming partnerships.

Whilst this may not be a particularly new idea to many businesses (many for example are already engaging with NGOs on fishery sustainability issues), looking through the lens of the social license can offer a more structured way of understanding and dealing with public relation issues. In this regard I think there are two key areas that the UK seafood industry can work on from the point of view of our collective reputation:

1) Improving engagement with UK consumers to further our understanding of what their values are.

2) Improving proactive engagement with the media, and to avoid being overly reactive to bad news that can lead to intense media activity.

Whilst there is no doubt that the UK seafood industry has made significant headway over the past few years on these work areas, there is still huge scope for shouting about the positive changes being made that align with our stakeholders values. Again, another lesson I took home from Kate's workshop was the importance of being authentic in any PR activity, to avoid cynically being accused by some of window-dressing and massaging facts to suit ones agenda. This perhaps requires a level of strategic and proactive engagement across industry that is currently lacking.