The article below was Published May 5th, 2014 in Environmental Leader.
For renewable energy companies and developers alike, a lengthy delay in the approval stages of a project can be costly. When time is money, it is important for companies to allocate their resources to the best of their abilities to maximize the likelihood of a successful project approval. Companies that neglect to form a comprehensive public affairs strategy to depict the ways in which renewable energy projects can be integrated into the community often face project delays, or cancellations altogether, especially when opponents of the project have built a strong campaign. To avoid such risk, companies need to rally their supporters in smart, innovative ways such as direct engagement via social media.
Social media has the potential to make a profound impact on a public affairs campaign for all types of renewable projects. Aside from information dissemination, social media offers a unique opportunity to evoke personal narratives from supporters of your project. This two-way communication between companies and supporters is more likely to be shared among supporters’ followers on social media than top-down messaging from the company. For example, a successful Twitter handle or a viral supporter is an effective way to educate and engage your audience, which is an important step in building an advocacy network willing to assist your project. Effective engagement means operating on the same platforms as the opponents and the public officials that companies ultimately need in their corner.
The strength of opponents’ social media campaigns validates how important it is as a tool to build an effective advocacy network. Ireland’s “Gaybrook Residents Against Wind Turbines” serves as just one example of how not-in-my-backyard (or NIMBY) tactics imposed through social media can cause more damage than simply overturning a proposal. In 2010, residents in the Gaybrook community flooded town council meetings to successfully defeat a wind farm proposed by Gaeltech Energy Developments. Since then, opponents continued their online organizing efforts to get a new bill called the “Wind Turbine Regulation Bill” passed in April to further restrict wind turbine zoning. In this way, the communication that takes place through social media groups can severely impede renewable energy projects when opponents form organized action groups to spread misinformation. A comprehensive social media strategy by renewable energy companies can counter these voices with vocal support to provide a more equal portrayal of public opinion.
Grassroots campaigning should not necessarily begin with social media, but it certainly must include it. With the proper methodology, renewable projects will be seeing green in no time provided the following tactics are planned for and employed in a proactive manner.
- Prepare a database of target residents and stakeholders prior to announcement. Once this database is prepared for outreach, identification tactics can be employed as the first step to establishing a line of communication for the project within the community. This database will help organize and track grassroots activities such as letters submitted or hearings attended. By sorting for geographic region or legislative district, messaging can be targeted and refined as needed for specific groups or areas.
- Announce the project wisely. If a developer fails to start campaigning early on, opponents can take control of the message and gain a significant advantage. By constructing a strategy before the news becomes public, companies can stay in control of the message. First impressions do matter, and education of community members should come from project experts rather than opponents if given the time to organize.
- Use telephone identification tactics with a short persuasive script to find which people in the community support the project once your direct mail pieces hit households. This way, recipients of direct mail have time to read a bit about the renewable energy project plans before asked for their support. Third party groups such as businesses and non-profits should also be identified for levels of support to reach large groups citizens who are active in the community at one time.
- Establish an online presence. Beginning a social media campaign should go hand in hand with the launch of a project page on a company’s website. Web ads can link directly to the webpage for supporters to learn more and offer to help. The key to an active social media page is two-way communication that encourages sharing. Posts should inform followers of project updates, but it is also very important to evoke the reasons why supporters are willing to back your case in an online forum. Allowing supporters to tell their story encourages sharing among friends, family, and thus potential members of a growing advocacy network.
Rapid communication and information spreading makes social media an incredible asset to any renewable energy grassroots campaign. However, what makes its greatest asset is often also its greatest obstacle given that opponents depend on social media to organize. As a result of these competing online forces, renewable companies must rise above the noise of opponents by connecting with those still undecided through phone banking and direct mail. These professional resources are ones that NIMBY opposition groups can sometimes lack, affording your campaign the advantage. Social media is still a necessity to be able to engage in ways community members and public officials communicate. Thanks to the nature of social media, developers can rapidly disperse information to a broad range of potential supporters.