Undertaking the siting of a major facility, whether a municipal landfill or a power plant, is a notoriously difficult and complicated process. I could write a few blog posts on the minefield of potential obstacles to successfully guiding a project from design to ribbon-cutting ceremony. However, most of those problems can be preempted with effective planning. Below are three basic components of a successful public relations program. While some of the recommendations may appear to be no-brainers, surprisingly they are often ignored, even during the siting of high-profile projects.
Do Your Homework
The easiest mistake to make when siting a facility is assuming the project will enjoy smooth sailing. Adopting this mindset has a numbing effect on the planning that should take place before the project announcement. Whether or not you actually face serious opposition, planning as if you will preempts potential obstacles from developing and mitigates those you cannot completely control.
A local election in the host community is one example of something that is easily overlooked. The entities that site large facilities often determine the announcement date based on the best time for them to announce the project, instead of considering local factors. Local elections can easily become a referendum on the project, even before you have the chance to defend it. Without background research, local elections – like other local quirks that come to light during the research phase – can be overlooked and jeopardize the project.
Engage the Community
The siting process often has an unjustifiably bad reputation as a one-sided conversation. However, in an effectively executed public relations program, the siting process becomes an opportunity to engage the community in a meaningful and frank discussion. Early in the process it is important to provide community members, especially opinion leaders, with an avenue for asking questions. In the same way that politicians occasionally launch a “listening tour” to better understand their constituents, one of the first steps in the siting process should involve an attentive dialogue with the host community about the facility’s possible impact on their lifestyle, even beyond what is required by permitting agencies.
Engaging the community builds trust because it gives the project personality and establishes a give-and-take relationship in which you can prove the project and its owners will be good neighbors. One electric generating facility was so successful engaging the community during the siting phase that the plant’s opening day became a cause for community celebration. People came out in force and enjoyed fishing in man-made ponds that had been built and stocked for the community’s enjoyment. An outcome like this is not a pipe dream, but the product of hard work and substantive community engagement.
Education is Key
Misinformation is among the most significant and common obstacles that new development faces. The challenge of overcoming this is simply the difficulty of getting the correct information into the public’s hands. For example, many people think of landfills as a colossal pile of trash instead of today’s carefully planned waste disposal sites that actually hide each layer of garbage under carefully compacted dirt. Landfills are now built to have minimal visual impact on the surrounding area and some even have biking trails that are open to the public.
Unless the public has the correct information in hand (and they will only get this from the public relations representative), they are susceptible to project opponents who will spread inaccurate information in order to achieve their own objectives.
Nobody can predict the particular obstacles that will arise during the siting of a major facility. However, experienced public relations professionals know the range of possible challenges and plan accordingly. The harder you work in the beginning, researching and forging relationships, the easier the project becomes. With hard work, your ribbon-cutting ceremony could also be a cause for community celebration.