The story of a concept

Origins and evolution of the social licence to corporate success.

Much to the embarrassment of the man who coined the term, “social licence to operate” (SLO) has become a buzzword in certain circles. At a workshop on the social licence last year, Jim Cooney apologised for inflicting the term on the world. Cooney coined the term in 1997 when he was vice president of external affairs at Vancouver-based gold miner Placer Dome, he used the phrase in a meeting with World Bank officials and they then used it at a conference on mining and communities. From there it spread throughout the mining industry.  Cooney’s original intention was simply to draw the attention of mining executives to the need for community approval for mining projects over and above all the legal permits and licences. However, it wasn’t long before opponents of all sorts of extractive industry, energy, and infrastructure projects appropriated the term to add an extra air of legitimacy to their opposition. That brought the social licence concept firmly into the realm of communications, political controversies and issues management.

In the case of successful opposition to a proposed bitumen pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to Canada’s West Coast, opponents claimed that the legal licensing process was biased and that therefore the social licence was all that mattered. Several Canadian lawyers reacted with horror, depicting the social licence as a self-granted veto and a challenge to the rule of law. In the end, the legal licensing process imposed hundreds of conditions on the project, some of which required the proponent to obtain the approval (i.e., social licence) of communities and other stakeholders on the pipeline’s path. In other words, the legal licensing process salvaged its legitimacy by absorbing the social licence into the legal regulations.

Robert Boutilier

Robert Boutilier helps organisations gain, maintain and improve their social licence. He applies stakeholder network analysis, social issue quantification methods and measures of the social licence to the challenge of strategic stakeholder engagement. Robert is an international researcher, author, consultant (www.stakeholder360.com) and associate of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.