Strategic Communications: Don’t Let the Mob Rule

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By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

When it comes to hosting events to introduce your development project to a community, it is critical that you control the environment. This is true whether you are hosting large-scale events to present your project to the entire community or small-scale events for influential stakeholders or neighbors.

Losing control of an event can come in many forms, but the most common, and most fatal, mistake that developers make is hosting open forums. These are events that are held in presentation formats, where developers address a crowd and allow audience members to ask questions. We know that development proposals can stir passionate opposition, and an open forum can spin out of control.

This environment can become quickly poisoned by people who oppose your project by having speakers stand up and say things like, “I don’t care what your traffic study says, I live near the project site and traffic is a nightmare now.”  In addition, their comments can be reinforced by audible approval from like-minded opponents. In this situation, people are certainly less likely to demonstrate support for your project. Moreover, public events like this generate awful press coverage. In fact, an event like this can derail a project altogether.

For large-scale events, we recommend a kiosk-style format, whereby an open house is held and, rather than have the developer make a presentation, several stations are set up featuring easels with plans and experts to interact with residents individually. Not only does this format prevent mob-rule from erupting, but it provides a much more personal environment that allows residents to have questions and concerns addressed directly. It also allows developers to build relationships with members of the community.

For small-scale events where a kiosk-style format is not appropriate, there are other ways of controlling the environment. For these events, we recommend that they be hosted by a supportive influential or neighbor, and that this person invite others to the meeting.  First, this offers you a friendly environment in which to host your event.  Second, this allows you to be selective with your invitees, thereby weeding out those individuals who are not interested in constructive dialogue.

So, when presenting your plans to the community, it is essential to guard against having opponents disrupt your event.  Otherwise, you might as well hand out pitchforks and torches at the door.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, email eagan@tscg.biz, phone 781.831.2494