Public Outreach: Getting the Community to Advocate for Your Company
(This article appeared in the April 2013 issues of Waste Advantage Magazine)
We crowded around a small table at a landfill’s operation center to discuss an ongoing problem. The neighbors were angry and had mobilized to fight a proposed expansion of the facility. The opposition had already caused costly delays and with a public hearing on the project just months away, the County Supervisors were being inundated with angry calls and e-mails against the proposal.
“Do we have supporters that can speak for us? Will they come to the hearing and make a public statement?” the landfill manager asked. An engineer spoke up with the same reply I have heard too many times, “It’s easy for opponents to find people to come out against our proposal, but average people won’t attend a public meeting to support a waste project.”
The engineer was wrong. Yes, NIMBYs (Not-in-my-back-yard) and community opponents are often well-motivated to attend public meetings. However, your supporters can also be mobilized with a little hard work and some creative grassroots organizing. The key is to let your supporters know they are not alone, that others in the community want the project to succeed.
As a grassroots and public affairs specialist, I have spent years mobilizing support for political candidates and controversial land-use projects. I’ve learned that people on both sides of land-use issues care more about what happens in their local community than they do about electing politicians—and they come out to vote for politicians all the time. So, yes you can turn your supporters out to a public meeting—you just need to use the right approach and the most effective community engagement tools.
In the past, waste executives would counter community opposition by calling the local public relations pros to generate a good news story. This might have worked at one time, but in today’s Internet-driven world, the opposition can organize fast and quickly impact your plans. Innovative waste companies understand that community opposition is a political problem and they use grassroots campaigns to achieve their goals.
Public affairs professionals all have different definitions for “grassroots” when mobilizing community support. There are traditional grassroots, grasstops and even grasstips organizing, all with a different level of effectiveness for your project.
Grasstops and grasstips are the highly visible members of the community. For example, a local chamber of commerce or rotary club president, or the owner of a large local company, would be a grasstops supporter. However, many mistakenly believe that grasstops and grasstips support is all they really need to win their vote. In reality, politicians expect this group of usual suspects to support your efforts—getting their support is the minimum requirement—and it is often not enough to overcome the most contentious community opposition.
Identifying and mobilizing true grassroots support from citizens is far more effective and provides true political cover for politicians that want to support your goals. Elected officials take notice when one earnest citizen, who does not have a financial interest in the project, speaks on your behalf more than a legion of chamber presidents.
Back at our crowded conference table, we began to formulate our plan to identify and mobilize our supporters and to ensure the County Supervisors heard from them before the public hearing. We developed a hearing day plan or Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) program to get our supporters to the meeting and have them speak on our behalf.
We used the same campaign tools that political candidates use when they run for office. First we worked to educate the public by sending direct mail to residents closest to the landfill. We also used the county voter list to develop a political profile of those mostly likely to support the project. A phone bank was then used to identify supporters after the mail arrived. Our outreach team went to the homes of identified supporters to have them write letters of support. We even collected brief videos of supporters to be played at the hearing of people who could not attend the meeting or were too intimated by the opposition.
Supporters of the landfill expansion were also called and then patched directly to individual Supervisors’ offices to communicate a positive message. We held a telephone town hall, which is essentially a very large conference call where people learn about a project and ask questions. It’s one of the best ways to communicate directly with people who are often too busy to come to a community meeting. During the call, people who supported the project were able to push a button on their phone and we were instantly able to capture their name and address, further growing our list of supporters.
We also conducted outreach to traditional stakeholders, abutters, businesses and local community leaders. The outreach staff provided the communications team with the names of people willing to write letters-to-the-editor or be quoted in the paper about the community benefits, all of which help counter negative news stories.
Preparing for the Hearing
As the hearing approached, we planned to get our supporters to the hearing as if a politician were planning to get his or her voters to the polls on Election Day. Now, armed with more than 3,000 supporters, we called through our list the week before to remind them about the hearing and personally asked them to attend and speak. We sent them mail and even drove a few key speakers to the meeting ourselves.
The public hearing was contentious—but balanced. The Supervisors heard from supporters of the project about the importance of jobs and additional tax revenue for the county—the key factor being that they heard it from many voters. Due to number of supportive e-mails, voicemail messages and people testifying in favor of the expansion, it was clear the opposition group was just motivated by NIMBY issues. Most importantly, the Board had the political cover they needed to make a challenging vote and support the project.
Any waste executive can run one of these campaigns. Your supporters are out there. It just takes perseverance and the right tools to find and mobilize them.
Frank Rizzo is Partner with Five Corners Strategies, a national grassroots public affairs firm that specializes in strategic communications, community engagement and corporate advocacy. He can be reached at (510) 378-2511 or via e-mail at rizzo@FiveCornersStrategies.com. He will be speaking on “Dealing with the Media” at WasteExpo 2013 on Monday, May 20, 2013 from 9:00 am – 10:15 am.