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Canadian miners dig into social media

A copper mine is pictured in Chile in 2011. Canadian mining company Goldcorp announced Monday that it was stopping work at a copper and gold mine in Chile after its environmental permit was suspended. (AFP Photo/Ariel Marinkovic)

There’s a big change happening in Canada's mining industry and it’s not about how companies face a potentially brutal year of austerity: in the age of Facebook and Twitter, mining executives are reinventing the way they communicate at a lightning-fast pace.

Gone are the days of carefully crafted company statements that are reviewed endlessly before being unleashed to the public. Social media is forcing change in the handling of information, good or bad, and crucial in crafting public perception.

"Speaking quickly on social media and speaking briefly on social media are very big changes for the mining industry,” said Jessica Terlecki, digital media specialist in corporate communications at Newmont Mining.

Many companies spend a lot of time and money producing lengthy, printed reports touting the good things they do, but the documents are hardly ever read, said Maureen Upton, principal at Resource Initiatives, a Denver, Colorado-based consultancy.

Now, content is created on the fly and shared instantly. People visit company sites with smartphones in hand and film the “good and bad things that happen there,” she told a standing-room only audience at a social media panel discussion this week during the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada mining conference in Toronto.

“They’re getting a lot of information from sources that are actually not at all controlled by the mining companies; sometimes controlled by critics so some definite issues surrounding social media and the mining industry," she said.

Going viral

Change is crucial. If you take, for example, the fact that Facebook has more than 1 billion monthly active users, while mobile user growth on the social networking site last year expanded by nearly 60 per cent, said Upton.

Twitter is the world’s fastest growing social media platform with 1 million users signing up each day, and the public appetite for YouTube is voracious with 4 billion hours of YouTube footage viewed every single month.

The linkages are staggering. There are 700 YouTube videos shared on Twitter every minute and 500 years of YouTube video watched on Facebook every day, added Upton.

Game changer

These facts alone are forcing mining companies to be more transparent and engage the public, critics or not.

“One of my colleagues said if you’re just messaging out and not listening, it’s like shooting into the dark. It’s not effective for the company,” said Deb Witmer, director of communications and external affairs at Rio Tinto Minerals.

Still, when it comes to communications strategies history has shown that quick and brief is scary, and particularly loathed by watchdogs in legal compliance units, the panel heard. That’s why companies are in the process of building communications approval processes that can operate on the fly. The key takeaways are the need to build rock-solid internal networks and have savvy people on the front line.

“Sometimes you hear of social media and it’s ‘Oh, we’ll get an intern to do that,’” said Andy Lloyd, director of media relations at Barrick Gold. “That’s not going to give general counsel a lot of confidence so I think it’s worth it to have the right experience.”

All this means mining companies can no longer have a low profile. Like it or not, the mining industry generally has a bad rap, even though there have been significant changes in the way mining is done today, said Diego Ortega, vice president of sustainability and corporate affairs at Gold Fields Exploration.

“We have left a huge gap between the company and people’s perception,” he said.

“Social media is an opportunity to start differentiating ourselves,” he added. “Now we have the opportunity to make sure people understand how we do things now.”