The article below was Published March 31, 2016 in Reliable Plant.
In the proposal process for any new facilities project, a variety of factors must be taken into consideration, ranging from the availability of suitable labor to the cost of relocating or purchasing new equipment. However, one factor that is vital to the success of the project yet is often overlooked is the public perception of the proposed project and corresponding need to build public support.
While many proposals provide a host of positive impacts within a community, a portion of the population often objects to the new development proposal to varying degrees. Often, community members in opposition to the project are those most directly impacted geographically. Thus, facilities projects can benefit from building public support community-wide.
Recently, one example of this phenomenon occurred in Daviess County, Indiana. National Salvage and Service Corp. developed a proposal for a new plant to manufacture railroad ties in Daviess County. While the plant would have brought more than 55 new jobs to the region, the proposal faced bitter opposition from neighbors due to fears about the chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Those in opposition proved steadfast, appearing at public meetings and creating petitions to display their strong opposition to the plant.
At the final hearing before the county zoning board, nearly 80 community members appeared to speak against the proposal. Because of this strong public opposition, the county zoning board unanimously rejected National Salvage's request. While the company may still appeal this ruling, at the moment the story surrounding this proposal is one of public fear triumphing over the proposed economic benefits the plant could have provided.
As seen in Daviess County, the strong emotions and fears of a group in the community often lead to bitter battles over confirmation, with developers pitted against community members in their attempts to secure approval for their proposed site. In order to counteract the misinformation and prevent the spread of the negative public perception that may exist, it is important to focus on building public support for a proposal from its inception. While all campaigns for community support are unique, facilities projects can benefit from the application of the following four principles to achieve a successful campaign.
Utilize Purposeful and Targeted Outreach Efforts
In any attempt to build public support, it is essential to identify local stakeholders' interests. Identifying community members and organizations who recognize and support the benefits of the proposal provides a reliable base of support within a community prior to any public hearings. Business groups, neighborhood associations and taxpayer groups are all examples of stakeholders that should be informed of project details to elicit support.
Additionally, identifying the citizen population in a community that is most likely to support the proposal allows for a more effective public outreach campaign. This effort, in many ways, can be structured like a grassroots political outreach campaign. For example, a vast amount of data exists to identify households by political district, age, income, voting history and other demographics. Companies can use this data to their advantage by building a database of likely supportive households for better targeted outreach. Organizing this information in a database prevents companies from wasting resources among those who may be locked in opposition against the project or in a district represented by an official who already supports the proposal. By rallying a public official's constituents in support, pressure will be applied in a targeted manner to bring that official to a position of support. As households are identified in support, against or undecided about the proposal, they should be coded in the database accordingly for follow-up and calls to action in later stages of the campaign.
Employ a Strong Digital Presence
In an increasingly interconnected world, maintaining a strong and updated digital presence is vital to increasing public support for a proposed project. The first step in building an online presence is to establish a website specific to the project, created both to enlist the aid of supporters and to provide information to both the public and the media about the project. Supporters of the project can be identified through a signup page that gathers email addresses for regular contact and calls to action.
However, a strong digital presence goes beyond simply maintaining a project-specific website. When utilized correctly, social media can and should serve as both a means of engagement and education for the community regarding a project. Through targeted advertisements and public calls to action, social media can be used as an effective means of personal engagement with community members who may be unengaged through more traditional means. This effort will promote an organic growth of grassroots support among a micro-targeted audience.
Engage and Educate Community Members
While the importance of a strong and updated digital presence cannot be overstated, it must be accompanied by more local and personal means of engagement. Utilizing information gathered in the database, conduct stakeholder outreach through means such as direct-mail campaigns, canvassing and phone-banking to engage and educate the community about the benefits that the proposal will provide.
In conjunction with these campaigns, direct contact with stakeholders through events such as open houses or personal meetings can provide an important opportunity to shift public opinion in favor of the project. Meeting community members to answer questions and form relationships with supporters is an essential part of the process. By offering information on a one-on-one basis between project experts and community members, these meetings allow you to clear up misinformation and educate individuals on the project facts.
Mobilize Public Support
Finally, the key to building support for a proposal is mobilizing people to take action on its behalf. Identified through personal or digital means, these supporters can contribute to a successful public opinion campaign by demonstrating a local base of support. These individuals can be helpful in a number of ways, from letter-writing campaigns to attending public hearings to serving as local advocates for the campaign. A vocal, supportive presence within the selected community counters public opposition to the project and allows messaging to better reach those in the community who have yet to make up their minds regarding the proposal. By reshaping the local dialogue, mobilizing public support is a vital step in the confirmation process for any proposed project.