(This is the 40th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)
By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group
So if your project doesn’t find a warm reception among the public, how do you begin the conversation? First, the way not to do it is by asserting that your project will only benefit the community and parading out your experts to prove it. There’s a time and place to do this such as in a quasi-judicial public hearing but it’s not while negotiating with neighbors.
The MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program offers a great model called the Mutual Gains Approach to use as part of this process. The first step involves acknowledging the concerns of the other side, even if you disagree. Your public statements should reflect this and emphasize that the goal is to make the best decisions in the interest of the community.
Second, you should encourage joint fact finding. For example, if your project involves the development of an energy production facility or the excavation or transportation of mineral resources, you could establish a community advisory group to address health and safety issues through initiatives such as joint monitoring. Next, you should offer contingent commitments to minimize impacts if they occur. This could include alternative site management plans or additional mitigation measures. Also, you should be prepared to accept responsibility if mistakes are made, explaining how you’re going to fix the problem without conceding liability.
Throughout this process, you should always act in a trustworthy fashion. This entails establishing a policy of transparency and sharing information with various publics. Lastly, you should focus on building long-term relationships. This would necessitate maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the community and demonstrating a level of community involvement such as through corporate social responsibility (CSR). Ideally, you should develop a CSR program that will benefit both the community and your value chain (see Strategic Communications Part 4: Corporate Social Responsibility http://bit.ly/iRkUY8).
Taking this approach will help you find common ground upon which to build support for your project. It will also help you maintain your reputation as a good corporate citizen.
Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email Eagan@tscg.biz