Community Corner: Transparency is key to preserving relationships in an era of mistrust

By Betsi Oliver
Outreach Coordinator

Clean Pacific, a conference for the oil spill prevention and response community, added a track this year with the theme of “communications.” I attended the conference to host the Council’s booth. In sessions and conversations throughout the event I heard one message coming through, loud and clear, about community relationships and trust:

The key to effective communications during a crisis, such as an oil spill, is long-term community relationships. The key to meaningful community relationships is trust. This trust is built on transparency, listening, and engaging key stakeholders in planning and preparation well in advance of any crisis.

The liaison from Canadian pipeline company Trans Mountain, for example, said that their practice of radical transparency met resistance in the company at first. Over time, however, it has proven effective. Sometimes the public misconstrues their messages, but with clarification and mutual dialogue, the community relationships are growing stronger.

This echoed a similar message I heard at an International Association for Public Participation training a few months earlier. Presenters wrestled with how we engage and inform communities in this era of mistrust. Businesses, government, and media are no longer regarded as reliable sources of accurate information. Even non-profits are losing credibility with the public. The recommendations were to seek deep ties to community members, to listen, and to share information, good or bad, transparently.

This sounds like old news to us. From the beginning, the Council fostered deep community ties, transparency, public engagement, and long-term relationships. Our interactions with industry, regulators, and our communities are based on science and the best interest of all stakeholders. We are a unique partner for industry, giving them a platform to provide information, answer questions, and listen to stakeholders, which helps them also develop long-term relationships.

The Council is ahead of the curve. We were created in part to be a model for the development of similar citizen oversight organizations across the country, so it makes sense. Our knowledgeable and active volunteers continually reinforce our deep community ties by sharing the message of who we are and what we do, and by listening to their member entities’ concerns.

Sharing the Council’s mission and message can be fun. Already this year volunteers have mentored teens, judged an ocean sciences quiz bowl, rode bikes in Washington D.C. between visits with legislators, eaten dim sum together, told stories about their lives’ impacts, shared photos, rode a Southwest Alaska Pilots Association boat, toured the pipeline terminal, and more.

Outreach by our volunteers is also effective. Our best social media responses come from posts that show our volunteers having fun while spreading our mission. The Council is most effective at sharing its message when volunteers connect us to their local community’s happenings, spread the word, and bring their friends. When a Council volunteer who is a trusted member of the community shares an informed message, others listen and believe it more readily.

I’m proud to be a part of this Council that has led the field in cultivating community relationships, transparency, and trust for almost three decades.

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