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You only get one chance at a first impression. When you arrive at the project site and begin setting up for exploration, starting working to develop your understanding of the project area and on establishing contact with key stakeholders. Your first week should not be about securing an agreement with local communities. There are four steps in this second phase:

Step 4

Get
Briefed

Step 5

Conduct
Formal
Introductions

Step 6

Observe
Your
Surroundings

Step 7

Conduct
Informal
Meetings

Step 4: Get Briefed

If you have set up meetings with high-level groups in advance, you can arrive in-country and immediately begin discussions. These preliminary meetings with high-level groups serve two main purposes: (1) they verify the desktop research you conducted before leaving; and (2) they prepare you for the formal introduction meetings at the project area.

The following practical tasks will help you make the most of these meetings and enhance your engagement efforts in the project area:

Tasks
Cross-check the information you collected during your desktop research

Preliminary meetings with other companies, the embassy, Chamber of Mines, community relations consultancies and other entities will help you verify your research. Share your information with them, ask for their assessment of whether it is accurate, and ask what else you should know. For example, do they have advice about what you should or shouldn’t discuss with community stakeholders? Can they identify any big local issues you should be aware of or discuss the legacy of mining in the area?

Check if you need an introduction letter to present to leaders/ authorities in the project area

Sometimes showing up in the project area without an invitation letter from the government or other authorities may lead to suspicion or refusal of access to the project site.

Find an appropriate translator​

In most cases, it’s helpful to hire a translator who is not from the local area. Bringing in an outsider can help you avoid unintentionally aligning yourself with a particular group in the community and making a poor first impression by demonstrating a bias towards one group. Other companies working in the area, business associations, your embassy or consulting firms can recommend qualified translators to you.

It’s important to spend time with your translator before arriving at the project site. He or she can learn the company’s messaging through conversation with you, rather than hearing it for the first time during the initial meeting. Also check whether the local language has terms for exploration and other activities you may wish to discuss. Many indigenous languages lack many of the usual exploration and mining terms.

Ask for the local protocol for introducing yourself

Most cultures require that first meetings follow a certain protocol that specifies who you need to see first. This could be a local mayor, a chief, a traditional leader or someone who informally represents the community. Sometimes these first meetings involve gift-giving or other customs. If you can’t find out during your high-level meetings what the local customs are, ask owners of local shops or businesses as you approach the project area – they should be able to advise you.

Also check whether there are any inappropriate gestures or body language you should avoid (e.g., in some parts of the world, showing the sole of your shoe is considered rude).

Also ask during initial discussions if it would be wise to get cross-cultural sensitization training and, if so, who offers it.

Find out who the key stakeholders are in the project area

It‘s often helpful to solicit suggestions from the people you meet with about who the key stakeholders are, even if you won’t be able to meet with them all. Not only can this process give you a sense of how well institutions at the capital level are connected to the project area, but it may give you the “legitimacy” to conduct visits in the project area (i.e., “I’m here because the Chamber of Mines suggested I visit with X or Y”).

Step 5: Conduct Formal Introductions

Your first formal introduction meetings in the project area won’t be, in most cases, the pressurized meetings you might expect. On the contrary, the sole purpose of these short meetings is to establish contact. It is not to secure an agreement or make a deal about gaining access to land. This is particularly important to remember if you arrive unannounced; local leaders may feel wary about doing or saying anything on the spot and may ask you to come back at a more appropriate time.

To build a healthy company-community relationship and secure community support for the project, there are three essential steps. First is initiating the relationship. Second is determining the rules for engagement. Third is discussing specific issues, which is best to begin doing once the relationship is established and the way you will deal with each other is understood. A common mistake people make is focusing too early on specific issues, such as trying to secure land access. Often they encounter challenges because they forgot to complete the first two steps – which are designed to make stakeholders comfortable – before making any formal arrangements.

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The structure of a first meeting generally follows a common pattern:

1. Introduction
  • Thank people for taking the time to receive you. It’s usually helpful to say how you feel about being able to visit their community, country or region.
  • If necessary, apologize for coming unannounced.
  • Introduce yourself. Depending on the situation, people often appreciate knowing more than just a name and position. Offer more personal information (e.g., your hometown or country, family situation and any experience in the country or region). Such information can help set a personable tone for the discussion
2. Explanation of purpose for the visit
  • Explain that this meeting is just to introduce yourself.
  • Inquire if you followed the correct protocol; present yourself as a guest to the area.
  • Explain that you understand if meetings with a larger group or other individuals need to take place that you’re happy to do this whenever is convenient.
  • Explain the basics of what is involved in mineral exploration6 and that you have government permission to operate in the area. Consider carry- ing copies of exploration permits with you or the contact details of offi- cials who could verify that permits have been granted to your company.
3. Exchange of information to solidify the relationship
  • Ask if anyone told them about your company.
  • Do they know about exploration and mining, and, if so, what is their general impression?
  • Have they had any direct contact with exploration or mining companies, and, if so, what were their experiences?
  • Ask if there are any culturally significant issues or sites you should know about.
4. Exchange of information to establish the process going forward
  • Propose a follow-up meeting to discuss exploration-related activities in more detail.
  • Explain the rest of your engagement plan. For example, “The Ministry suggested I also speak with X and Y. Do you have any suggestions of people with whom I should also speak?”
  • Be explicit about future engagement. For example, “What is the best way for me to share information with you on how we are progressing? How regularly would you like me to be communicating with you?”
5. Close the meeting
  • Thank people for the meeting and summarize/confirm the issues that have been discussed.
  • Ask for suggestions about what they would be interested in learning more about.
  • Set up the next meeting.
6. Subsequent meetings
  • Explain the exploration process (e.g., typical timeline, differences between exploration and mining, likelihood of finding an economical deposit, employment opportunities).
  • Clearly explain that your company may only be there temporarily.
  • Explain what the community might expect to see (e.g., new people, more cars, equipment being transported).
  • Commit to accountable and transparent communication. Explain that you will always be honest, both in the good times and bad (e.g., in case you have to deal with changes to pre-existing commitments).
  • Determine how often you will meet, who should be present, if minutes should be taken, who should chair the meeting, and so on.

TIPS:

  • If you are under time pressure, increase the frequency of meetings but do not attempt to take short cuts to “save” time; you won’t. Typically, it’s better to have several short meetings with short agendas than a few very long ones.
  • In some situations, local leaders might be slightly apprehensive about your presence. Where appropriate, ask for permission to informally speak to other members of the community. For example, you might ask, “Is it acceptable to you if I speak to other members of your community so that I can learn more?”
Here are some more general tips on engagement practices:
Do
  • Ask how the community is organized
  • Ask how you can help local people get a better understanding of what you are doing
  • Allow people to speak their minds, even if you do not agree with their opinions
  • Acknowledge people’s concerns (“I’m glad that you asked that”)
  • Listen at least as much as you speak
  • Show that you listened: summarize the point someone made and ask if you understood correctly
  • Apologize on behalf of the company if it made a genuine mistake
  • Ask for examples to make sure that you have a solid understanding of what people are telling you
  • Show empathy and try to place yourself in other people’s situations
  • Try to be as precise and exact as possible (“May I come back to meet you next Monday at 10 a.m. in your office?”)
  • If you do not have an exact answer to a question, be honest and say you do not know, but promise you will get back to them with that answer
  • Always follow through on your promises
  • Meet with people when there is no direct “need”; ask if there is anything they want to discuss or if they have any questions
  • Provide complete, unbiased information with ex- planations and education, if necessary, to ensure that it is properly understood
Do Not
  • Make promises about jobs or project outcomes
  • Ask about what people “need”
  • Try to make a deal or agreement before you have established a relationship
  • Talk too much and listen too little
  • Interrupt when other people are speaking
  • Be accusatory or blame others
  • Say you do not have any budget
  • Come up with other excuses if they are not true or genuine
  • Defend the company if it made a mistake
  • Refer to, or call upon, your company or senior management when you know the answer yourself and can handle the situation
  • Use vague phrases like “We will consider this in the future” or “I will refer this to management”
  • Give answers to questions if you are not 100% certain that you are correct
  • Show off: for example, if you need to travel a short distance, walk (and talk to people) instead of drive
  • Give, or appear to give, preferential atten- tion, information or benefits to one group within the community over another
  • Offer incomplete or biased information or opinions

Step 6: Observe Your Surroundings

There’s a lot of information you can gather by simply observing your environment as you drive or walk to the project area. Observing your surroundings for a few days allows you to verify your desktop research and update your initial understanding of the context in which you are working.
Here are some specific things to look for:

1. The general socio-economic situation
  • Are there many people on the street? How do people move: by foot or community taxi, or do they have their own cars?
  • Observe buildings, noting construction materials, conditions and up- keep. For example, roofs made out of leaves, corrugated iron or clay tiles, and peeling paint, cracks in masonry and boarded windows may indicate relative poverty.
  • Notice driving behavior: do local taxis and other traffic pose a safety risk to the community (and potentially the exploration team)?
  • If this is an agricultural area is farming mechanized or done by hand?
  • Are the land plots small or large, subsistence or industrial?
  • Look at the local markets: are they large and abundant? Do they have a great variety of vendors, or do they largely consist of small food stalls?
  • Are there any banks in the area or does it seem to be a cash economy?
  • Are there many school-aged kids on the street during working hours?
  • Look for exceptions, such as things that appear to be “different.” Are there mansions in an otherwise modest town? Are there large land plots among small ones? Does one area of town look better kept than all the other areas?
  • What goods or services appear to be available in local markets or in the centre of town?
  • Look for the presence of services that indicate disposable income: bars, restaurants, video halls, internet cafés, and so on.
  • Assess the safety situation: do people walk around at night? Are there any night markets? Do women walk by themselves after dark?
  • Are there any signs of small-scale mining (e.g., gold buying outfits, lots of places that sell water-pumps, buckets)? 
2. The extent of the state’s presence
  • Is there any indication that the community follows a municipal development plan?
  • Are infrastructure services visible (e.g., waste collection, water reservoirs, quality of roads, phone towers, public transport)?
  • Is there any visible presence of state security/police forces? If so, what signal does their presence send? Are they patrolling officers or a paramilitary-style militia?
  • Drive by the schools, clinics, water stands and other public services: are there any signs of overcrowding?
  • Do you see any posters of political parties posted? These could indicate that the area is considered important enough for campaigning. Where possible, try to assess the local view of national and local politicians to verify their level of popular support.
3. Conditions in areas with pre- existing exploration or mining projects
  • Do other companies’ cars have meshed windows? Are there any signs of damage to company vehicles as a result of stone throwing?
  • What message are companies sending through employees’ driving behaviour? Are they driving slowly with the windows down or fast and furious?
  • If the companies have notice boards, are these still intact or have they been vandalized?
  • Are there any anti- and/or pro-mining slogans on walls, buildings or other structures?
  • When you wave to people, do they wave back?
  • Do job seekers hang out in front of the main gate of sites?
  • Do company employees wear clothes with the company logo when they are in town?
  • Is there any sign of an influx of people (e.g., crowded houses, new houses built in backyards)?

While gathering information should not end with your visual observations, walking or driving around will help you establish first-hand impressions of the area, which you can discuss during subsequent informal meetings with stakeholders.

Step 7: Conduct Informal Meetings

After your formal first introductions and your visual observations, conduct some informal discussions with people in the community. For example, talk to people in tea houses, markets, shops, pool halls, and taxis. In most places, it’s easy to start a conversation. An introduction can be as easy as, “Hi, my name is George, and I’m going to be doing some work nearby. I’d like to get to know your community and your culture. Can you tell me what it is like to live here? What are some things I should be aware of?”

These discussions will be very informal and fairly short. Listen for things that indicate cultural sensitivities, leadership dynamics, perceptions about authorities, experiences with previous companies, and make sure to confirm some of the visual observations you made earlier. Remember that on occasion, the real influence in a community comes from the informal leaders – elders or local activists – who need to be included in engagement efforts. In public meetings they may be the people sitting quietly at the back of the room “taking it all in.”

Be ready to share information about the company and about yourself – where you are from, your family situation, and other personal information. Local people will likely be as curious about you as you are about them.

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Although the following list of questions is not exhaustive, you can use it to guide your informal discussions:
Who?
  • Youth at taxi stands or pool halls
  • Women at markets or watering places (rivers, tap stands) – be aware of culturally appropriate interactions between men and women
  • Local business owners in tea houses, barber shops and other gathering places
  • Informal leaders such as religious officials, school teachers, business leaders, civil society leaders
What do you ask?
  • What do people like about the area? Do they see it as a good place to live? Why or why not?
  • Who do they see as people in the community that have cred- ibility? Who do they listen to? Are these formal or informal leaders?
  • Are there different subgroups or clans in the community?
  • Are there any existing schisms or conflicts in the community?
  • If the company wants to consult with “the community” on a more ongoing basis, how should it go about doing that? Are there regular meetings through a council or assembly? If so, how well attended are they?
  • Which people in the community should the company engage with?
  • What do they suggest that the company should do to avoid making mistakes?
  • Is there any particular information about the project or the company that the community might like to receive?

In areas with pre-existing projects:

  • Have they heard about your project? If so, what do they know? Do they think of the project positively or negatively?
  • What are some of the changes people have seen since other companies started working in the area?
  • How do they assess the overall relationship between the companies and the community?
  • What are the types of policies and behaviours that your company should duplicate, or, alternatively, avoid?
  • Do people feel they have access to the companies?

By the end of your first week, you should have a good sense of the key stakeholders and an understanding of the project context. You’ll be building on this initial knowledge baseline as you advance your work, so it is important to document your activities from day one. ( See the next section for tools to help you record your engagement activities.)

Next Step

Once the relationship has been initiated, how do you build momentum and scale-up your activities?