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Risk Communications: what can we learn from the mobile phone industry?

15 April 2016

As the Government announces new permitted development rights allowing mobile phone masts, Rebecca Eatwell, Deputy Managing Director at communications consultancy PPS Group looks at the issue of risk communications in the shale gas sector.

Mobile phones are such an integral part of everyday life that it’s hard to believe that only a few short years ago mobile phone operators looking to secure planning permission for new masts faced community protests. In fact, far from opposing new mobile phone masts they are now actively requested by local residents in areas of poor signal.

In PPS’ early days in the 1990s, we worked on a number of planning applications for new mobile phone masts and faced community protests more common these days for large scale energy projects.

Now mobile phones are an integral part of a campaigner’s arsenal, being used to organise and document protests on a real time basis. Social media has transformed the way that campaigners communicate with their audiences and this wouldn’t be possible without the mobile phone. Live tweeting from protests is a commonplace tactic used to put continued pressure on decision makers from the moment they start.

So, how did we get from local communities vehemently opposing new mobile phone masts to actively requesting them? The issues at the time were not dissimilar to those facing the shale gas industry. Concerns around potential health impacts ensured local debates were highly emotive and garnered significant media and political interest. Now, the evidence hasn’t significantly changed since the 1990s, yet attitudes have fundamentally so.

Time, as they say is a great healer, and in this case is also a great reassurance. First-hand experience of communities living next to mobile phone masts without any widespread impacts on their health has helped to normalise them. But more fundamentally it’s about the benefits outweighing the perceived risks. Most of us couldn’t function without our mobile phones – evidence suggests that we look at our phones over 110 times a day. Our need for instant communication and the convenience mobile phones offer and has overshadowed any potential risks to the point that potential health impacts are rarely mentioned these days. And even when they are this hasn’t had any measurable impact on mobile phone usage. In 2014 a study appearing in the British journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine led to media headlines suggesting that heavy mobile phone use is ‘likely’ to cause cancer. Yet mobile phone usage in the UK has skyrocketed since the 1980s with 93% of us now owning a mobile phone.

Are we likely to see a similar shift in the shale gas sector? Could we see a future scenario where local communities are calling for shale gas sites in their authority because they want the economic benefits? That remains to be seen, yet what is likely is that the debate around risks and benefits will become much easier when we have an operational well pad with a track record of safe operation which local communities can visit and we can see those economic benefits in action.

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