By Frank Rizzo
The saying goes that not all whiskeys are bourbons but all bourbons are whiskey. The same goes for community engagement for waste companies. Not all public relation campaigns are community engagement but all good community engagements efforts are great PR. Landfill and waste facility development are often controversial and involve long, drawn-out processes for permitting and more often than not, strong opposition from NGOs, NIMBYs and local stakeholders. Rare is the week where I don’t get a phone call from a waste company somewhere in the country that’s faced with such challenges leading up to a public hearing on their project.
So what goes wrong? Most often the answer is simple, a public relations campaign was implement that ignored the most important part of the mission – the public. The majority of marketing and public relations firms are guilty of this. They are great at advertising campaigns, fancy graphics, press releases and social media updates, which are important, but secondary tools in an effective local community engagement effort. And sitting behind a desk just talking to the pressnever solves contentious development issues. They are solved by engaging your supporters and opposition alike through direct community engagement.
Community engagement is a necessary part of the process of project development in the United States. Failure to do so will often delay development, postpone hearings and, most importantly, cost a company a tremendous amount of money.
In some cases engagement with stakeholders is also legally mandated, but there are many more reasons to engage the public than simply fulfilling regulatory requirements.
While the process can appear to be daunting and difficult for companies developing projects, community engagement, if undertaken with the right mindset, can offer much to improve the project and ensure a healthy and long-term partnership with a local community. What’s important to remember is that each project is different and there is no “one size fits all” approach to community engagement.
Unfortunately, some waste companies take the approach of presenting projects in a pre-packaged form, almost as a fait accompli. While they might go through the motions of community engagement, the idea is to “sell” the project to the public. Companies that are wary of community engagement often turn to traditional public relations to help with their sales pitch with the goal of “selling” the project to the public. There is a false belief that this approach will save a great deal of money in the long run if delays are encountered.
Unfortunately this approach leaves little room for meaningful discussion and input, and reinforces the public’s perception that the company has a condescending “we know what’s best for you and your region” attitude, which local communities will see right through and will reject.
This method of selling rather than presenting a project or proposal to the public for input, buy-in and refinement has many drawbacks, such as:
When citizens don’t feel engaged in the process, they lack understanding and ownership of a project.
When companies don’t adequately take feedback into consideration, they don’t fully understand a region and can’t tailor their project to suit its unique needs.
The long-term success of a project can be undermined without a solid base of public understanding and/or support.
When it comes to land use development, it’s the proponent’s responsibility to educate stakeholders – to make them feel they have enough information to make a well-informed decision about a project. The importance of “owning” the message before your opposition does cannot be understated.
Stakeholder engagement typically follows three recognized steps: Target Effectively, Leverage Your Supporters, and Consistent Messaging. The public has the right to be concerned about your project, to ask questions about it, and even to oppose it. But every person should have the correct information in other to form her or his opinion and oftentimes NIMBYS are putting out false information that needs to be corrected.
The top objective of community engagement is to not only educate the public but mobilize your supporters so they help you influence the decision makers. Large groups of supporters sending letters and making phone calls can be effective.. Additionally, it is important to realize that encouraging a relatively small number of contacts from people a decision maker knows will have a stronger effect than mass communications efforts to the public. Often, at Five Corners Strategies, we’ve been able to influence a key decision maker by quickly mobilizing supporters that happened to have a close relationship with that decision maker. The major point here is that your relationship with these strong supports should not end after a successful outcome to a campaign. Maintaining good local relationships beyond the immediate need will benefit your development long-term.
Leverage Your Supporters
Understand that any collection of people can and should be segmented for better use of their talents. In community engagement, while it would be nice to get a 100% response rate from your network, the truth is there will be some that show no interest in helping. However, there will be some that are interested and want to help your cause and don’t know how, and there will be those that have direct connections to the right decision makers. At my firm, we have found an effective way to segment your membership is to split them into three groups:
The “warm bodies” or total number of supporters in your local network.
The “active supporters,” or those that have indicated they wish to help the organization accomplish its goals.
The “influential supporters,” or those that have indicated that they have a connection to a legislator and have indicated willingness to help the organization.
With these three segments a company has choices about how they wish to utilize their supporters and reach decision makers either with a large group campaign or a small focused campaign.
Finally, it is important for your community engagement effort that you are able to lead your supporter’s communication efforts. Too often companies ask supporters to call or send a message to a local decision makers or legislator with very little information about why they should be interested in the outcome or without the proper tools to quantify the activities of supporters. Companies assume that their supporters have the time, the inclination, and the expertise to craft an effective message to politicians, but they are often disappointed by the response results. There a great web tools that can be used to handle the most challenging part of providing the messaging but also tracking which public officials received messages from your supporters.
Meaningful community engagement that involves ongoing two-way communication with a project representative or an experienced outreach team increases understanding, clarifies the community’s preferences and values, and allows the proponent to not only understand how the public’s views can and should lead to the right permitting or policy decision but also help identify project or proposal supporters that can be mobilized into a company activist.
For the company in question, a committed community engagement strategy will identify a community’s views on your project and how this perception changes over time and this is the best public relations money can by. It will allow you to anticipate issues and develop ways of addressing them before they happen, which could include inviting the public to have input into solutions. Ultimately, it will help develop the public’s trust in your process and create a loyal group of supporters that will mobilize if and when you need them down the road. And they will remind public officials that their fortunes rise and fall at the pleasure of their local constituents, which is exactly what you want them to remember.
Frank Rizzo –
Frank is a founding partner with Five Corners Strategies and brings nearly twenty-five years of political and public affairs experience to Five Corners Strategies. He advised some the country’s leading waste companies, developing and managing grassroots public affairs campaigns to influence political, legislative and policy decisions in over forty states and in Canada. Five Corners Strategies serve clients throughout the United States from six different offices. You can reach Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-378-2511.