Posts Tagged ‘American West’

First, a list of some barriers to communication; on Monday (if not before) some tips for more effective communication regarding land-use and natural resources issues in the rural American West.  This is an excerpt from my paper, “You Gotta’ Know the Territory!” done as a final Capstone project for my Master’s in Communications Management at Syracuse Universtiy.

Barriers to Communication

 The following are communications barriers which may affect any given public relations program:

 Concerning the company or agency:

  1.  Lack of support from senior management.  There is no question but that effective communication needs the active support and involvement of senior management if it is to succeed.
  2. The specific cultures within some corporate entities, such as mining companies and pipeline companies.  Here, the difference may be described as one of the strictly utilitarian view of the land held by the company in question (“we need to re-route this pipeline”), and the myriad of cultural, spiritual, intellectual and emotional values which those in the local population hold about the land and the landscape (“not in our valley, you don’t.”).
  3. The specific cultures within some government agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the National Parks Service.  There may be attitudes which are the equivalent of, “We’re the experts, we’re hired to do this job, and the public doesn’t understand or know what needs to be done” (Nesselroad and Mihalic personal interviews, 2007).
  4. Lack of understanding of the history and culture of the area.  If a company comes into a western region wanting to open a new mine, drill for gas and oil, or perhaps operate a big game reserve, and doesn’t know whether or not that particular area and its communities have dealt with such issues before – and how they dealt with them – then the company is already operating at a deficit (Dunlap, personal interview, 2007).
  5. Lack of understanding the values and views of the “Old West” and the “New West.”  The West is often looked upon as a cohesive region, unified by its vastness, a place that can be treated in a general way.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The clash of older populations versus newer immigrants to the West has often erupted over land-use issues.
  6. Lack of knowing about differences in culture, values and perspectives.  The differences throughout the West are not simply a matter of classifying the Old West and then the New West.  There are vast differences in the various communities.  For example, Butte, Montana, will always be a mining town; Missoula and Bozeman are university towns with expanding retirement and newcomer populations, with Bozeman being more “gentrified” than Missoula; and all three of these are different from the ranching community of Malta, on the north central Montana “Highline.”
  7. Imbalance of power between the corporation or government agency and the local community.  For example, the citizens of Libby, Montana had no power in their initial dealings with W.R. Grace & Company; the people at Grace knew about the asbestos, and simply kept silent.  Similarly, Native American tribes had no power against the dominant white culture for many years. Efforts to understand how to work with various tribes still lag far behind efforts made to understand business dealings elsewhere.
  8.  Assumptions that are not based in fact.  For example, it’s a big mistake to assume that people living in rural America are not educated.  In Montana, at least, most people choose to live there; they could make a much better living almost anywhere else.  Always remember “there are Ph.D.s out in the woods” – and act accordingly.
  9.  Prior biases that may need to be discarded before communication begins.  For example, many people hold unconscious biases against Native Americans because they’ve not had any experience dealing with tribes and reservations, and/or because the only education one has received about Native Americans has been full of the same biases and was assumed to be the truth.

Both of these points – #’s 8 and 9 – speak to the need to do the proper homework, and understand the history, culture and realities of the area before work begins

Concerning the Western psyche:

  1. Traditional western distrust of outside corporations and government agencies, as described.  That distrust seems to be more pronounced the more a region has been used for its extractive industries and the more it has been approached with a patriarchal attitude.
  2. The traditional western reliance on face-to-face communication, not mass media, coupled with…
  3. Lack of established relationships.  It is paramount in western, rural areas to establish personal relationships with anyone who has any interest in the issue at hand.  This is time consuming, expensive, and absolutely necessary.  Westerners place high value on being talked with in an informal, personal way, and do not traditionally value canned media messages.

 Concerning logistics and format problems:

  1.  Difficulties in disseminating information caused by sheer distances to travel in order to speak with people directly.
  2.  Problems with public meetings and other communications tactics which do not engender trust among the local populace.

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The Mission Mountains and Flathead River in northwestern MontanaWhat do people see when they look at a scene like this?  Wilderness?  Those mountains are Montana’s Mission Mountains, are are indeed a protected wilderness area.  But the word “wilderness” can be a scary word to some people living in major metropolitan areas, along the lines of “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”  Well, there aren’t tigers up there, but lions and bears – you bet. 

Sportsmen might see prime areas for hunting and fishing; after all, Montana has famed blue-ribbon trout streams and really big game.  Tourism is a very big part of Montana’s economy.  Yet people living in nearby towns might see a lack of jobs and a close-to-defunct economy, one that sees fewer and fewer people able to make it on one job alone.  They may resent the wealth of the tourists and hunters, and of newcomers to the state, while they struggle with what the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana calls “The Montana Discount” – substantially lower wages. 

Enviromentalists might see something pristine to be protected forever … whether or not they are aware of any mines in the area, or over-fishing, or real estate development without stream setbacks, or plans to drill for oil or gas somewhere within reach …. You get the idea.  All that you see in this photo is withing the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; do we hear their voices?

I wrote about this topic of communicating about land-use and natural resource issues in the American West for my final paper at Syracuse University.  It’s a topic I’m passionate about when it comes to public relations.  There is absolutely no one solution to these varied and complex problems; they cannot be reduced to sound bites.  I’ll be writing about them here from time to time, outlining some suggested steps and ideas for improvement.

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