(Editor’s Note: Saint Consulting increasingly uses social networking to win land use battles in the US and UK. Frank Rizzo, one of our division managers, explains its appeal and effectiveness)
By Frank Rizzo, West Coast Division Manager, The Saint Consulting Group
Politics has never been the same since February 4th, 2004, when Mark Zuckerberg launched a social networking website called Facebook from a dorm room at Harvard University. It changed the landscape of politics and how people communicate with one another. Barack Obama’s campaign famously used Facebook and the internet to run an insurgent campaign that shocked pundits by defeating Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary.
What does all this mean for a developer or a company engaged in a controversial real estate project? Imagine sitting at one end of a long table at a dinner party and not hearing or participating in the conversation at the other end of the table. If your development team and project is not utilizing social networking to build support for your project or even monitoring what opponents are saying about it, you are missing a significant amount of information that is putting you and your company at a competitive disadvantage.
For years, modern campaigns were one-way conversation from politicians to voters.
Obama’s online campaign raised millions of dollars and helped him win the Presidency. Facebook is now the largest social networking site with over 300 million members, and e countless other sites and social networking techniques gain popularity every day. Twitter, Myspace, YouTube, LinkedIn and viral emails are all forms of social networking that in just a few years have become a part of our daily lives.
Social networking has created a sea change in this dialogue creating a two-way flow of information. The conversation is now moving even beyond two-way communications – hundreds and thousands of people can communicate simultaneously.
Social networking is a fantastic tool for communicating with people and finding people who share your goals. There is simply no better way to find people who are looking for information. And this is really how social networking has changed the political landscape. It allows you to communicate and connect with people who have interests aligned with your goals or who many be interested in what you have to say. You can easily find and communicate with people who are interested in the environment, parenting, sports teams, labor unions, or even people interested in a particular store. These people are ready-made activists just waiting for you to ask them to help you with your project or goal.
Are you trying to build a wind farm? There are over 2,300 groups on Facebook for people interested in alternative energy, one group “Americans for Alternative Energy” has over 125,000 members. Trying to build a shopping center? When you search the word “shopping” on Facebook, you will find over 48,000 different groups and fan pages. The fan page “Shopping” has over 448,000 people who might have an interest in your project. As you can see the opportunities are truly limitless.
The challenge when it comes to building a social networking campaign is to take online activism and bring it off the internet. Howard Dean pioneered this effectively in his 2004 presidential primary campaign utilizing online “meet-ups” that migrated off the internet and into large public campaign rallies. Obama took “meet-ups” to the next level and used the social media to activate hundreds of thousands of people to attend his campaign rallies. Most recently the Tea Party movement has used social media to hold spontaneous rallies around the country to protest government spending.
Every day, in small town council halls, NIMBYs (Not-in-my-back-yard) and YIMBYs (Yes-in-my-back-yard) are using social networking to pack meeting halls in support and opposition to development projects. In one recent example in Tennessee, a group opposed to a development project provided continual Twitter messages and talking points to their members during a public hearing.
While each social networking site will have communications techniques that are unique, some constant strategies apply across most networks. Once you have found “your” people, it is important to remember that the conversation is a dialogue with the public and not just one-way communications. You will also need to continually provide dynamic content and information that retains people’s interest and encourages them to stay actively engaged in your project.
Information and ideas travel fast on the internet and you will need to continually monitor your social networking feeds to respond to questions, comments and potential rumors that can harm your project. You will need to find ways to encouraged your online supporters to take action in support of your project. This can be through the internet by sending emails to local planning official and politicians encouraging them to support your project or emailing their friend and peers and ask them to join your social network.
Most challenging of all, you will need to find ways to get your online supporters to migrate their support from the web to physically attend Town Hall meetings, make phone calls and write letters to local decision-makers to support your project.
If you are not doing social networking you could be missing an entire conversation about your company and your project. You could be missing an opportunity join the debate on your project, find supporters, influence the discussion, and get the facts to people and counter rumors and false accusations.
Frank Rizzo is west coast division manager for The Saint Consulting Group, email email@example.com , phone 510 279-4273