Your audience will judge you by your cover

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By Leo Valiquette

Earlier this year, I had the honour of being involved with Northern Lights 2012, a four-day conference that showcased economic and business development opportunities in Canada’s north, along with the social, cultural and environmental considerations that must be part of any commercial activity up there.

The emerging opportunities in the north, as well as the bargaining power its resources afford Canada on the international stage, are immense. The conference focused on the territory of Nunavut, the region of Nunavik in northern Quebec and the region of Nunasiavut in Labrador. Between them, these regions possess oil and gas reserves that dwarf western Canada’s, a diverse selection of mineral wealth, massive untapped green energy resources and new opportunities for tourism.

On the other hand, developing Canada’s northern resources is also a politically charged issue, in which the well-being of local communities and the environment are considered paramount. Despite the fact that many northern communities, business interests and government officials are eager to attract investment and create partnerships with businesses from the south, any commercial activity must tread lightly. Effective public relations and candid community engagement are crucial.

Before I go further, let me state for the record that I have nothing against white, middle-aged men in suits. I often am one (a white man in a suit, that is). And I believe that Canada must develop its natural resources to ensure our economic prosperity.

Why the disclaimer? During the conference, I sat in on about a dozen panels that featured white, middle-aged men in suits from mining, exploration and transportation companies that are already active in the north. Not one of them stood up to deliver their spiel without first emphasizing the great lengths to which their respective company was going to protect the environment, provide vocational training, create jobs and improve quality of life across the north.

Were they lying? Of course not. These are not claims that can withstand public scrutiny for long if they are false. Nonetheless, I was often left with the impression that these guys in suits were making certain to tell their audience what they thought the audience wanted to hear. They were prefacing their presentations with a form of disclaimer. At times it seemed that they were trying to outdo each other in singing the social praises of their respective companies the loudest.

I made it a point in these presentations to watch the reaction of the audience, which of course included residents of these northern communities. Perhaps I am betraying some kind of personal bias here, but it seemed to me that the most common reactions by these audience members was bemusement, skepticism and scorn, fueled by history and the divide between social class and cultural values.

It was an assumption that was proven by what I picked up wandering about the arts and culture pavilion and speaking with a number of the exhibitors. There is a contradictory mix of anticipation and fear of what will result from developing the north. Change is seldom easy and often messy.

This brings me back to those white middle-aged guys in suits, plying middle-aged aboriginal guys in denim with all the right messages. Sure, there were middle-aged aboriginal guys in suits too who bridge the two divides, but they do not represent the majority. The private interests that want to develop the north’s potential need to win over and prove their sincerity to the guys, and gals, in denim.

Perhaps it isn’t the message that was the problem in those panels, it was the presentation. In this context, the Mr. Corporate Executive persona gives the wrong first impression and creates a barrier with the audience. It’s Marketing 101 — you have to engage with your audience on their terms and with sincerity to win their trust and prove your value to them. What I saw at Northern Lights is but one example and the rule applies to any brand that is trying to sell itself to a new market or demographic.

Image: Arrested for Life

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