By Patrick Fox,
President, The Saint Consulting Group, and staff
Are your opponents really just angry neighbors? Is that opposition group with two lawyers, a traffic expert and funds for full page newspaper ads really just a few guys from the neighborhood? Often the neighbors are being enflamed, organized, trained and funded by your competitors.
The chief reason that your competitors will use strategic opposition is that it’s difficult to detect, and therefore difficult to defend against. If you can’t find your enemy, it’s hard to know where to aim.
Strategic opposition is done sub rosa, by indirection. Like a clever politician, your competitor will maintain deniability, and to prevent anyone from figuring out who knew what and who did what, and when. Your competitor will insulate himself from guilt by using layers of agents, underlings and provocateurs. He’ll issue his orders to an agent, who will convey instructions on a need-to-know basis to a field operative, who will meet with (or perhaps chair) the citizens’ group.
So your competitor may finance the citizens’ group, but you’ll never see him attend a meeting or make a statement. Accused at town meeting, he will not respond. Confronted by the press, he will plead ignorance.
But it isn’t necessary for you to be able to prove he’s behind the opposition. It’s enough that you see the signs, smell a rat, and prepare your defense accordingly
In most cases, it should be easy for you to identify a list of suspects. Who is your nearest competitor? Who has plans for a store in the same area? Who has the most to lose if your store is built?
Once you know whom to suspect, it will be easier to learn how to identify their agents.
How do you know that strategic opposition is at work against your project in the first place? Here are some telltale signs:
1. A new, aggressive citizens’ group forms with the singular purpose of defeating your project (even though you have been meeting with neighbors).
2. Your cordial relations with public officials suddenly, and inexplicably, turn cold.
3. An abutting local business not in competition with you begins finding reasons to oppose your project. (This may mean your competitor has hired the used car dealer to use his abutter status against you; or has an option to buy the dealer’s land if your project fails).
4. Average blue-collar citizens begin spouting sophisticated arguments against your project. (Better yet, they turn up with index cards and read their arguments aloud.)
5. People who live on the other side of town (or out of town) turn up in opposition to your project.
6. You are attacked by a sudden series of letters to the editor in the local paper.
7. The citizens’ group begins buying newspaper ads costing hundreds of dollars, with no apparent signs of fundraising activity.
8. People whom you can identify as working for your competitor attend hearings to oppose your project.
9. The citizens group demands mitigation and/or linkage far beyond reason, and far above anything they would concoct on their own.
10. People who have no apparent reason to be interested in your project begin circulating petitions opposing it.
11. The citizens’ group hires a traffic engineer to dispute your study; or pays an environmental consultant to view your property.
12. Your opponents are unusually well informed and organized.
13. The citizens’ group turns up at public hearings with a lawyer.
14. Every time you agree to a request made by the citizens group, it changes its demands, making them harder to accept.
15. You learn that someone has been doing a telephone poll on your project.
Patrick Fox is president of The Saint Consulting Group, email: email@example.com, phone 781 836 4163