Drumming up public support

The article below was Published April 3, 2015 in Port Strategy.

Public Strategy Group's Al Maiorino explains the importance of getting early public support for port projects

With over 350 container terminal proposals with estimated completion dates by the end of 2020, significant growth is projected for the cargo shipping industry in the coming years. However, despite this productive outlook, the risk of public opposition causing delays or cancellations for these new facility or expansion projects remains prevalent.

Themes of environmental protection, noise pollution and aesthetic contamination all build into the opponents’ argument, which can cause great disruption for campaigns if specific preparations are not made to counteract opponents’ messaging. As new cargo terminal projects are proposed, developers must make strategic outreach to ensure that public support can be identified and mobilised to convince public officials that these projects will benefit the community.

Currently, Lebanon’s Port of Beirut is engaging in a long term project to transform the port into a transhipment hub in part by filling its fourth basin to create more space for operations and allow for additional container storage at the port. Construction was expected to begin in February, but due to a public protest by members of the community against the project earlier this month, opponents successfully rallied the support of political and religious groups to halt the project and allow the government additional discussion on the issue.

Additionally, opponents have filed a lawsuit against the port authority and Public Works and Transport ministry, claiming that the action of filling in the fourth basin is illegal. They also claim that the action will destroy jobs and have a negative impact on national security. Despite this group’s effective action, the project has the support of some officials, such as tourism minister Michel Pharaon, who supports additional storage space for operations at the port and believes the idea of filling the basin is accepted by many.

The Port of Beirut is just one example that the actions of a small group can easily override the preference of the silent majority. However, this problem is certainly not unique to Lebanon. Cargo shipping projects all over the world are opposed as plans for new or expanded facilities surface. Even in situations where projects have already been formally approved by relevant permitting authorities, opposition groups can raise protests and engage media outlets to halt construction temporarily or permanently, costing companies millions due to the loss of their investment. As entities proceed with their cargo shipping proposals, they should engage communities to build support to ensure positive messaging is spread through a supportive community.

Educate, record, mobilise

Once a proposal is announced, take control of the message to ensure accurate and updated information is circulated to the public. This can be achieved by launching a website, sending direct mail, and posting web advertisements. Arming community members with the facts is the first step to making sure they are prepared to advocate for your cause. To sway undecided members of the community, host an open house at which they can engage with project experts and ask questions on an individual basis.

Outreach should be tracked in a supporter database once identification of supporters begins. Identification can be conducted through a short persuasive telephone call to households after sending out direct mailers to educate the community on project benefits. All supporters, undecideds and opponents should be recorded through database coding for organised and efficient follow up.

The difference between successful campaigns and those that suffer defeat is often a contingency of loyal supporters willing to speak at hearings and write letters of support to public officials and newspapers. Community support must be heard from the outset and maintained so that opponents are not the only voices sharing their opinions. Following successful identification, grassroots mobilisation is one factor that entities proposing cargo projects cannot overlook.