UTS Library

The Fight To Save The Gulf

Client: 

MG Kailis

PR Company: 

Professional Public Relations

Award Category: 

Award Type: 

Call Number: 

2010 C3 - 2

Year: 

2010

Executive Summary: 

Late in 2005 Alex Kailis was gravely concerned.

A mining company wanted to build a solar salt mine on the eastern side of the Exmouth Gulf in North Western Australia. For 40 years MG Kailis had fished these pristine waters for prawns, building one of the town’s largest businesses.

But the environmental risks of the proposed mine were extreme and could destroy the sustainable fishery and impact severely on MG Kailis’ reputation as a world-class supplier of clean seafood.

The fishery employed 100 people, provided major revenue and was an economic driver for the tourist town.

The only alternative was to stop the mine going ahead.

For the next five years MG Kailis and PPR battled the mine’s proponent, entering a unique and risky alliance with conservation groups and gathering thousands of supporters to its cause. At the same time MG Kailis and PPR fought to maintain the company’s support in Exmouth which became a town divided over the mine proposal.

Ultimately the proponent withdrew its proposal after the State Government’s environmental watchdog, the Environmental Protection Authority, and many other government agencies and experts were convinced of the argument against.

Situation Analysis: 

MG Kailis is a major supplier of quality seafood to domestic and export markets. Its major prawn fishery is located on the eastern side of Exmouth Gulf. The Gulf region is also one of Western Australia’s premier international tourism destinations.

In 2005 Straits Resources announced its plan for a solar salt project in the same location, including construction of massive salt ponds and a 70 kilometre retaining wall. MG Kailis was stunned. It believed the retaining wall would block the flow of nutrients that replenish mangrove flats which act as a living nursery for juvenile prawns.

The salt field effluent was poisonous and Straits did not have a definite plan for its disposal. In an area prone to cyclones, the environmental risks were enormous.

The proposal was subject to Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) approval but the only satisfactory outcome for MG Kailis was for the proposal to be completely stopped. Failure would impact on the company’s reputation and its finances. Future expansion plans would be shelved and the entire fishery reviewed.

MG Kailis and PPR had to enlist scientific and general community opposition to convince the EPA to reject the proposal outright.

But there were other problems to overcome - Straits’ proposal presented economic and employment opportunities which would be welcomed by many and the conservation movement and commercial fishers were not traditional allies.

Research: 

While MG Kailis’ personnel reviewed Straits’ environmental documentation, PPR was given three major research tasks:

  • review all the proponent’s documentation to detail strengths/weaknesses and opportunities from a public affairs perspective;
  • document the financial and social benefits that have resulted from MG Kailis’ presence in Exmouth and the economic and environmental risks posed by the proposed salt project;
  • examine areas of common concern and alliances that could be formed against the salt project.

The third research task reinforced the decision to form a public alliance of the State’s peak conservation, commercial fishing and recreational fishing groups.

This was a very risky strategy. Traditionally, the three groups did not work together and, on many issues, their views were vehemently opposed.

Target Policies: 

The ‘Halt the Salt’ strategy would be supported by three pillars – the conservation movement, the scientific community and the wider public. It was determined if this support was strong, the government and regulators would be convinced.

One relationship, between Stephen Hood and Dr Nic Dunlop, became the first building block. Dr Dunlop worked with the WA Conservation Council and had helped MG Kailis improve aspects of its fisheries.

Both men had also worked with Frank Prokop who headed WA’s peak recreational fishing body. All three also knew Brett McCullum, the head of the WA Fishing Industry Council which represented commercial fishers. PPR was fortunate to have a former Media Advisor to the Fisheries Minister on its staff and he knew all four men.

From this core of relationships others were developed and in early 2006 the ‘Halt the Salt’ alliance was officially launched with the following groups represented:

  • WA Conservation Council
  • World Wildlife Fund (Australia)
  • WA Fishing Industry Council
  • MG Kailis Pty Ltd
  • Recfishwest
  • Recfish Australia
  • WA Pearl Producers Association
  • North West Research Association
  • Cape Conservation Group

From these networks volunteers emerged whose work and commitment would prove invaluable, including John Baas, a semi-retired businessman who became the Alliance Convener.

The next targets were the scientific community and many relationships were leveraged and forged to gather the required support within the following groups:

  • Tertiary Institutions
  • Independent and/or retired marine researchers
  • Conservation movement
  • Commercial fishery research arms
  • Government marine research bodies

While expert scientific support was gathered, the Alliance started to build awareness of its role and concerns throughout the wider public arena.

Finally, the decision makers were identified and strategies devised to ensure ongoing and constructive engagement within the review framework. The targets were:

  • WA Minister for Fisheries, ministerial staff and departmental officers;
  • WA Minister for Mines, ministerial staff and departmental officers;
  • WA Minister for the Environment, ministerial staff and departmental officers;
  • WA Premier and his ministerial staff;
  • Other Members of WA Cabinet;
  • WA Opposition spokespersons and their staff;
  • WA Environmental Protection Authority, board members and staff;
  • Australian Minister for the Environment, ministerial staff and departmental officers;
  • WA MPs with North West electorates;
  • All other WA MPs;
  • WA-based Commonwealth MPs.

Communication Strategy: 

MG Kailis had to work with the conservation movement. But to protect its reputation as a member of the business community it also had to work outside the Alliance.

There were many potential pitfalls. By being part of the Alliance, MG Kailis risked being branded by some conservation groups and its opponent, Straits Resources, as only being interested in the environmental argument for its own economic motives. It also risked criticism from the wider business community and some Exmouth residents for not allowing another industry to co-exist.

All potential criticisms were considered but analysis concluded the need to work with the conservation movement was more important. The strategy became to accept the criticisms but keep debates out of the public arena.

During the course of five years many events emerged to test the strength of the Alliance.

MG Kailis was pilloried in public for its fishing practices in an attempt to fracture the Alliance; Recfishwest was forced to scale back its activities when its government funding was threatened; volunteers came and went; other conservation issues took precedence and resources; and the sheer passage of time took its toll on everyone involved.

Similarly, any criticisms or issues that arose within the wider business community were tackled behind the scenes. These issues mainly centred on Exmouth where the population became divided between those who wanted the economic benefits of another industry and those who didn’t want the environment put at risk.

During the campaign, alliances shifted within the town’s Local Government, Chamber of Commerce, conservation and tourism groups in support or against the proposal – and always with MG Kailis at the centre of debate.

Implementation: 

The ‘Halt the Salt’ battle was fought on three fields – in Exmouth; in the corridors of political power in Perth; and over the Internet.

The first two battles required largely traditional implementation methods, but the third battlefield was still relatively new territory in 2005. Social Media was yet to infiltrate the public relations industry to the extent it has now. Even the creation of a website was still considered a major undertaking by mid-level clients such as MG Kailis. But all partners in the Alliance knew the most effective means to mobilise the campaign was via the web.

The battle also had to be fought in two ways – via the Environmental Protection Authority’s formal legislative framework and via the wider community. The campaign was based in Perth where all strategy meetings were held. It was run along conservation movement lines with agreed actions formulated, implemented and reviewed at every meeting.

The public launch occurred in late 2006 with a media event backed by widespread distribution of campaign materials, eg brochure, bumper sticker, leaflets, and the dedicated website. At the heart of the campaign was a petition distributed manually and on-line to all corners of the globe.

As a major employer in Exmouth, MG Kailis had many existing networks and relationships at its disposal. These were augmented by regular presentations to local business, government, tourism and conservation groups and State politicians.

PPR ensured local media was always informed of latest developments concurrently with Perth media. As the Social Media phenomenon grew, the campaign became involved in discussion threads on a range of websites to ensure its views were heard.

Perth was the political battlefield of the campaign. Activity was exhaustive, involving political, business, scientific, academic and conservation circles of influence, and included the following:

  • Media launch, conferences, doorstops, interviews, backgrounders;
  • Presentations and mail-outs of letters, petitions and fact sheets to politicians;
  • Staging of Scientific Forum;
  • Petition presentation at Parliament House;
  • Parliamentary Questions by supporting MPs;
  • Presentations to industry, community and conservation groups;
  • Distribution of bumper stickers and brochures;
  • Presentations to scientists and researchers;
  • Formal presentations to the Environmental Protection Authority;
  • Ongoing formal engagement with relevant Ministers and their staff;
  • Informal engagement with MPs via political party organisations, eg Liberal 500 Club and Labor Business Roundtable.

The Internet became the heart of the ‘Halt the Salt’ campaign. Aside from the many Western Australians who wanted the Gulf region protected, thousands of international travellers visited the area every year.

The petition was distributed on-line via the ‘Halt the Salt’ website. Regular communications were also provided to subscribers via an on-line newsletter. Volunteers ensured every respondent received a reply and discussion threads and links to other sites and a Facebook page were established and maintained.

The website was greatly enhanced by the addition of underwater videos of the area. Requests for information and messages of support were monitored and documented and every opportunity to raise awareness explored.

Results: 

The ‘Halt the Salt campaign was instrumental in stopping the salt project. The basis of the opposition was that the risks involved were too great and had not been properly addressed by the proponent.

In 2008 the Environmental Protection Authority rejected the project outright, but an appeal was lodged by the proponent. In September 2009, the Environment Minister sent the proposal back to the EPA for re-assessment but two months later the proponent withdrew its application.

PPR’s critical role enabled MG Kailis to maintain a lucrative operation and its reputation as a good corporate citizen despite its involvement in a very public environmental campaign.

Evaluation: 

The ‘Halt the Salt’ Alliance met regularly throughout the five year period of the campaign. Every meeting documented key actions required and the progress/results/success of these was evaluated at subsequent meetings.

Evaluation measures included growth in petition signatories, website hits, newsletter readers, scientific support, government, media and community awareness. The petition ultimately attracted more than 5,000 signatories.

MG Kailis, however, repeatedly stated there was only one result that mattered – complete rejection of the salt mine proposal. Managing Director Alex Kailis was resolute in his view that anything short of this outcome would be considered a failure by the Alliance and PPR.

PPR helped Alex achieve his goal and today MG Kailis continues to operate in the Exmouth Gulf with plans for future growth.