Win Community Support: Nine Essential Steps

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By Patrick Fox

community-meeting With large-scale development often facing clamors of opposition, generating community support for a project is a challenge to developers. To persuade a community to support a new project often means overcoming issues of property use, real estate value, traffic, environmental issues or character of a neighborhood.

A developer needs a strategic communications goal to win such support — and to come across as open, reasonable, and prepared to compromise, a communications plan is essential.

This note explores how to reach out to the community to consider your view, rather than leave these issues to NIMBY opponents to define. Here are basic elements for a communications plan to consider:

Know what you’re getting into before you commit vast resources to a location.
After finding a site that would work economically, developers should invest in a “community audit.” This means researching local newspapers to see how other recent project proposals have been treated and interviewing opinion leaders in the community about development in general and about your potential site in particular. A telephone survey can then determine how the general public feels about new development, and test what arguments will work to change opponents’ minds. The research may cost $15,000 to $25,000, but that’s a lot less than the cost of site plans and drawings for a project that will never be approved.

Take your plans to the local government officials, economic development officers, and planning officials, but leave plenty of room for compromise. Don’t go in with a plan cast in stone, but have a pretty idea of what you want to build (e.g. 60,000 square feet of retail, or 125,000 square feet of commercial). Make sure they understand that you want to work with their professionals and the neighbors and with interest groups in the community. Don’t meet with public boards at public meetings at this point. Timing is crucial. You’ll need to approach key public officials and neighbors first (and certainly before the project is outlined in the press).

You will want to be the first one to announce your plan in the news media to give the news a positive emphasis. You do not want to give your opponents time to mobilize or the ability to “out” you before you are ready. If you work on this process of educating the public and consensus-building before you begin the formal permitting process, you may save yourself a good deal of trouble later.

Once initial meetings with officials and neighbors are over, prepare a detailed press announcement that includes a description, a list of project benefits, and addresses potential problems. Do a series of one-on-one interviews with appropriate local press. Generally, the local press will give a project one good story, without criticism or comments from opponents; but only if that original news comes for the first time directly from the project sponsor. If an opponent is the first to tell a reporter about the project — or if the first mention comes up at a public meeting — you lose forever the chance to put your own initial spin on the announcement.
The developer, or someone from his staff, should get to know reporters from the local newspapers, radio and television stations who are likely to cover the project and the permitting process. The developer should give reporters tours of the locus, press materials, and complete and consistent access to someone who can answer their questions and comment, on the record, for their stories.
As the project proceeds, the development team should request a meeting with local editors and seek favorable editorials, or the opportunity to publish opinion articles explaining the project on the appropriate opinion page.

As the project proceeds, the developer should begin door to door visits to neighbors in the immediate area, discussing plans, soliciting comments, sharing ideas, and making residents feel as if they are getting the chance to contribute and to have their ideas considered.
This approach takes time, so the temptation is to meet only with those who call to object, or to set up group meetings.
But time spent early in one-on-one meetings will reap rewards later; and those neighbors who have spent time contributing will develop a vested interest in seeing the project succeed. Some will become evangelists for your project, counter-balancing those who oppose for the sake of opposition. Others will ease their opposition and become neutral. And, once you’ve shared a cup of coffee with a neighbor at his kitchen table, he’ll find it pretty difficult to attack you in a public meeting.

Assume that opponents will collect signatures on a petition, write letters to the editor of the local paper, contact public officials by phone or letter, or both, and create specious arguments and exaggerate facts to build opposition to the project.
Assume, also, that concerned residents will raise good questions about traffic, safety, and environmental impacts.
To deal with both situations, you need to develop materials that acknowledge and answer the legitimate concerns and questions, correct misinformation, deflect criticism, and communicate in a strong and direct manner the positive elements and benefits of your project.
These should include:
· A brochure, flyer or question-and-answer sheet that covers all the major points of the project.
· Press materials, including fact sheets and press releases.
· A six-to-eight minute video that shows the need for the project and its benefits, while addressing potential problems and how they will be mitigated. The video should be produced for use on local cable TV, and at public meetings. A video often gets the message across better than other forms of communication because people who cannot visualize the project from a description can see the vision on-screen. Once produced, a video can be cheaply duplicated for distribution to city officials.
· Carefully-crafted, paid advertisements in the local newspapers can be extremely valuable in getting your message across; but these are usually used only when you need to reach the public by going over the heads of the city officials, or when opponents’ attacks are so vicious they demand a public response.

Project opponents generally assemble without encouragement, show up at public hearings, write letters to the editor and sign petitions. Often, elected and appointed public officials are swayed by the side that has the most signatures, or the most bodies at the hearing, or makes the most noise.
It is critical to show grass roots community support for a project. The first problem is that most people simply don’t feel strongly about a new supermarket. Sure, it might be nice; and they certainly need one; but their lives are too hectic to get involved.
The second problem is that even when people become proponents of your project, they are less emotionally involved than opponents. For proponents, a new market would be convenient; for opponents, a new market is the end of the world. So without great effort by the development team, you cannot rely on citizen supporters to become activists, like their opposition counterparts. Supporters need meetings; reassurance; handholding; input. And most of all, they need to be convinced that your project will be good for them, their families, their neighborhood, and the community as a whole.
Because it is vital that supporters be heard, it is important to spend the time and money needed to collect signatures of support. Door-to-door canvassing is the tried-and-true traditional method for success, but is both time consuming and labor-intensive. Setting up a booth at a public place and soliciting signatures on a petition is one alternative, though generally not as successful; sending every home in the community a letter with a self-addressed business reply card is another, but the volume of responses may be disappointing.
Coffee parties and speeches before the local service clubs are additional opportunities to identify those who favor the project so they can be asked to write a letter, sign a petition or attend a hearing.

Each public hearing is an opportunity to score points if you are prepared, or to be blown away if you’re not. You must assume that project opponents will attend, pack the hall with their adherents, and try to hoot the project down.
So, preparation is critical. Write, edit and rehearse your presentation. Use computer-generated animation, videos, overheads, or slides to illustrate it — but choose carefully, depending on your subject matter and environment. (Overheads do better in a very dark room, while slides are more forgiving, for example. Videos can be very effective — if done well — and disastrous if done poorly.)
Round up and deliver your supporters to the meeting. Recruit speakers. And at the climactic juncture in the permitting process, get a lapel button made and distributed to your supporters to wear it to the hearing as a show of force.

The strategic communications goal during all phases of the permitting process must be for the developer to (1) appear open and flexible, (2) seem reasonable and prepared to compromise, especially when compared to the most strident opponents, and (3) be honest and concerned.
Developers cannot afford to lose their tempers, seem insensitive to community concerns, be uninformed on local political circumstances, or appear unwilling to accept reasonable compromises.

Patrick Fox is president of The Saint Consulting Group, email, phone 781 749 7290

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