(Robert J. Flavell is vice chairman of The Saint Consulting Group and co-author of NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use. This concludes the series begun last month)
By Robert J. Flavell, Vice Chairman, The Saint Consulting Group
Once the developer has identified natural supporters, outreach efforts will be needed to contact, recruit, and organize them. For that, you’ll need to find a citizen leader in the community, usually a natural supporter who has leadership abilities and feels strongly that the community needs the project.
It’s important that a local resident lead the citizen group to provide credibility and assure effectiveness. Clearly, the developer cannot manage the group, or its members will be branded as dupes and the group will lack credibility and influence. An outsider won’t do to manage the group for much the same reason: lack of credibility and influence. Local residents will mistrust a stranger who suddenly appears in town just in time to accept leadership of the pro-development citizens group. But a local resident who has longstanding community ties and legitimate personal reasons for supporting the project will be accepted at face value, and has the credibility to round up community support. The best way to find such a leader is to look among your natural supporters for a person with leadership skills who has the time and enthusiasm to do the job right.
You may well need to quietly fund the support group, but their expenses should be small—the cost of flyers and urns of coffee. Remember that a group seen as bought will also be seen as hirelings. The group needs to appear independent of you and your company, which means that they may disagree with you on some points, or may have different ideas of what constitutes adequate mitigation. Taking their suggestions seriously and treating them with respect will win you points in the community.
Citizen Group Effectiveness and Activities
The effort to get a project approved and permitted organizes natural supporters to carry the issue, works to neutralize or marginalize opponents whose efforts can damage the chances of approval, and stresses the benefits to the community not through a public relations or marketing program but through the citizen advocates organized for the purpose. Those advocates will express their support in their own words and from their own point of view, a much more effective approach than using a canned list of talking points.
Ardent supporters will also sway others who know and respect them—relatives, neighbors, co-workers, friends—will deter those who might have reservations about the project but don’t want to offend a neighbor or old friend, and can dissuade, neutralize or turn at least some opponents because they clearly speak from their own viewpoint and not as agents of the developer. Make sure your group has a Web site and email address so that people tempted to support your project can easily join up.
Once it has a leader, the group can begin engaging in political support activities, forming coalitions with other groups, calling public officials to express support, writing letters to the editor, managing a website, starting a blog, printing flyers, and attending meetings and hearings, for example. They can also hold fundraisers and seek donations to offset their expenses, and stage a site cleanup to dramatize the improvement your project will bring to the area. One particularly effective activity is the citizen petition drive, in which your group members collect signatures of local voters who favor the project, or at least are not opposed to it. A stack of signed citizen petitions makes a nice prop for your lawyer to present to the licensing authority at the big hearing to bolster your claim of widespread public support.
Robert J Flavell is vice chairman of The Saint Consulting Group, email firstname.lastname@example.org