AS A a proxy for a shareholder, I attended the Gunns AGM on Thursday Oct 30th at Gunns offices in Lindsay St., Launceston.

The meeting was pretty much like others that I’ve attended ... filled with meaningful sounding words combined into meaningless phrases. A kind of positive conceptual salad.

Several people noted that the heating was well up in the room, creating a soporific atmosphere conducive to semi-consciousness.

The meeting was well attended, particularly by Gunns board, and was opened by the chairman, John Gay, who haltingly read out the rules for the meeting.

We started with the Annual Report in which Gunns describes itself as a fibre company. After the usual formal posturing, Calton Frame popped up to tell us all about sustainable plantation development.

During the course of his presentation, he described both plantations and referred several times to ‘our forests’ – an interesting development.

Several audience members queried the unbelievably low cost of Tasmania’s forests to Gunns and were counted with comments like ‘as shareholders you should be really happy that Gunns has got such a good deal.’

The entire presentation really set the tone for Gunns and its relationships with our governments when one of the first slides stated “Gunns Ltd has reached a milestone in the development of a sustainable plantation forestry resource for sawn timber, veneer and pulpwood production” John Gay 2008.

Numerous times during the meeting Gunns declared themselves world leaders, sustainable, environmentally friendly and so on. Apparently that’s all it takes. You declare yourself to be great and so it will be ...

After learning how Gunns genius had led to a sustainable plantation resource, we were also told that Gunns was now into third rotation of plantations and that they might not need any more MIS as they had 200,000 ha of plantation.

On questioning from the audience, John Gay repeated that Gunns was determined to bring the mill to Tasmania and not let the jobs go to somewhere with a less environmentally friendly mill.

Most things the company is doing are either sustainable, world class, environmentally friendly and so on.

At one point, one questioner pointed out that John Gay’s statements had turned out to be less than reliable ($1 million per day, guaranteed finance, mill starting last year, shares good value at $1.50 and so on). The questioner then asked John Gay how shareholders could believe someone with such a bad track record.

John Gay replied to the effect that ‘I can give you my assurance that my credibility, and that of Gunns managers’, is unquestioned and you can take what we say at face value.’

Everyone just sat there and took it, each blowing slightly to lower their body heat, eyelids fluttering as they sank further into trance.

Unremarked was the dreadful share performance coupled with the poor returns. On a revenue of $860 million, Gunns posted a profit of $64.5 million – around 7.5% return - little better than bank interest. When seen in the light of the hundreds of millions of dollars in free or low price resources, special favours and exemptions plus an MIS program that returned around $120 million, that return looks like incredibly poor performance that should make the board ashamed.

At 12:00 the meeting was closed and the audience filtered out into the light.

Frankie!

One attendee asked me why I hadn’t asked lots of questions. My answer is simple. I can hardly blame Gunns for taking hundreds of millions of dollars of public money and putting it into their pockets. Neither do I expect my voice to change Gunns behaviours.

I believe that our problems are created and maintained by our governments, and that it is our governments that need to change their behaviours. After all we are paying them to represent our needs – if they aren’t doing that job then we should get rid of them.

Gunns and the forestry industry in general, seem pretty attached to the kinds of approaches to communication recommended by the likes of Frank Luntz. It’s not what you say, it’s what the audience hears and understands that matters.

Hence constant repetition of desired impressions –  intoning words like ‘sustainable’ and ‘environmental.’

Many of the techniques remind me of hypnotic suggestion – you assert what you want your audience to believe – exactly what John Gay and his colleagues were doing.

Manipulative? Many might say so.

I argue that it’s up to our governments to expect, and demand, verification for the claims of industry. If government just accepts that an industry is ‘carbon positive’ and/or ‘contributes many jobs to this great country of ours’... etc etc then government is open to manipulation and will be weak and compliant in the face of industry demands.

Let’s get positive

If we were to learn from what Frank Luntz is saying, we’d recognise that talking about ‘forestry’ in terms created by the forestry industry, just helps to shape the impression that the industry is trying to create. Forestry are the experts, objectors are just ignorant or anti-forestry.

But if the linguistic techniques of Frank Luntz work for forestry (and the advertising industry and the government and the military etc etc) what would happen if those same techniques were applied by those who do not want ‘industrial forestry’ but instead want local community based decisions?

We might first discuss what we actually wanted – not an end to forestry - which creates conflict and tension – but what we want for our collective future.

Let’s say that was ‘a peaceful landscape with lots of trees and wildlife, many small businesses engaged in local specialty activities, lots of jobs at the local level, focus on heritage and beauty’ and so on.

We’d then draw from that vision the characteristics that we felt that people would support and we’d keep communicating those characteristics. When the issue of forestry was raised, we could then accentuate how the positive characteristics of our vision might be threatened.

Our press releases might read ‘we want to retain the natural beauty and diverse businesses of the area – we want to protect people’s jobs in small business – we want to help people retain control of the quality of their water and food supplies and we want to help people to be happy in their local circumstances. We want more tourists to come to our island and spend their money appreciating what we’re building here. Our needs are not the priorities of the forestry industry so we must act to protect what we all hold dear.’

The idea is to keep communicating what we want. To keep repeating the benefits and associating them with our community of interest. We want our audience to feel positive about what we’re saying so we’d keep including our claims for their benefit.

We can say ‘community methods and local contributions produce the best outcomes for ourselves and for our visitors’. We don’t need to prove that any more than forestry needs to prove its carbon claims.

Community claims are justified because they are made by the community.

In discussing forestry, we’d combine the negative characteristics from a community perspective – perhaps defining them as ‘highly subsidised, self interested woodchip makers’ or similar.

Such an approach would change the nature of the ‘battleground’ and take forestry on their own terms.

Such a course requires co-ordination and a shift from defensive messaging to positive vision. It also means a shift from protest action that hasn’t achieved results to a suite of methods that appear to work very well in today’s media environment.

Can it happen? It certainly can if the environment and community groups can learn to work together to create a positive vision for their future.

Will it happen?

Watch this space.

Mike Bolan
http://www.abetteraustralia.com

Mike
is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive/management coach.

Note: The author welcomes constructive criticism and new information that adds to our understanding of these matters.

Mike Bolan Gunns AGM
We started with the Annual Report in which Gunns describes itself as a fibre company. After the usual formal posturing, Calton Frame popped up to tell us all about sustainable plantation development. During the course of his presentation, he described both plantations and referred several times to ‘our forests’ – an interesting development.  Several audience members queried the unbelievably low cost of Tasmania’s forests to Gunns and were counted with comments like ‘as shareholders you should be really happy that Gunns has got such a good deal.’