Rise of Community Outreach Plan: Part 1, Defining Universes — who to reach

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By Jay Vincent

Regional Vice President, The Saint Consulting Group

Many of our clients, of course, become our clients in a crisis. For instance, their market area is under assault by an aggressive competitor or their project is about to be denied because the vocal minority in a community has sung so loudly that the elected officials perceive a large voting bloc that they can co-opt with a vote against the project. Well, the first example we can talk about later, but the latter is a crisis worth avoiding.

I must say, we work well in a crisis. Our senses are enhanced. Our thinking is engaged. The pressure is on, and the results will soon be clear. All real campaign strategists love a good challenge and the rush that comes along with it. But, a good consultant doesn’t want to operate in the crisis. Rather, she would prefer to be proactive and engineer a chosen outcome instead of defending turf that can be owned if a coordinated plan is employed. So how do we own the turf?

Owning the turf starts with a well defined campaign plan that includes not only a communications track but a field track and an education component as well. Essentially to own the turf a plan must be developed and utilized as the guiding force of earning the achieved end. So, over a series of articles we will address many of the different pieces to a well defined campaign plan.

Part 1 ought to start with how to approach a project and what it means for the “universes” of people, or groups of people you focus on during the outreach effort. Of course every project is different and what phase a project is in matters greatly about how to approach dealing with the public. But for good measure let us assume that a company has control over the property on which it intends to build. What the company needs is a rezoning, and they have been told by local contacts that neighbors typically fight every rezoning. So starting here, what should we do?

I propose you start by breaking the entire interested public into a series of manageable universes much like a marketing department would segment its customer base. Not only does this help to focus your efforts, but it ensures you are looking at these universes as independent groups with unique needs and desires for information. Why? Because they do!

Consider the abutting neighbors. They will be the most impacted. It is likely that an elected official believes the abutters’ opinion matters most when a disruptive land use is being considered. Assuming this, we know that this universe must be handled differently than say the adjacent county or the neighborhood association that represents citizens from the adjacent subdivision. With these abutters we must craft unique messages that address specifically their fears.

We must also ensure that the elected officials know that this area is having its issues addressed or at least heard. Knowing this group of people and their concerns proves to the elected official that you are doing your best to relate with the community. You can also use this to neutralize the opposition and disarm them by discussing their issues before they have the opportunity either at a public hearing or public meeting.

That said, moving out from the site, we begin to consider other stakeholders in the process. There are the other neighborhoods that are near the site. In the next tier are local groups with interest in the benefits or costs of the project. We then begin to look at the local grass tops network and attempt to find allies that we can utilize to build political support for the project.

In the end, I think we end up with a number of critical universes for every project. I think that we could list them as follows:
1. Abutters to the Project
2. Adjacent Neighbors
3. Local Civic, Political and Stakeholder Organizations
4. Supportive Governments and Other Elected Officials
5. Known Opponents

Jay Vincent is regional vice president Mid-States for The Saint Consulting Group, phone 312 212 8889, email vincent@tscg.biz

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