Embrace Conflict, Create Dialogue
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Embrace Conflict, Create Dialogue

Your company is planning to build a new facility in a community that may not welcome its presence with open arms. Your first instinct is to make as little noise as possible. Wrong, says Gary Robbins.

Paul Holmes

Your company is planning to build a new facility in a community that may not welcome its presence with open arms. Your first instinct is to make as little noise as possible. Wrong, says Gary Robbins.
Once your plans become public, a small but vocal group within the local community makes its opposition known. Your first instinct is to mobilize your allies and concentrate on winning the support of the silent majority that is as yet undecided. Wrong again, says Robbins.
Robbins is the founder of Urban Alternatives, an urban planning and environmental consulting firm founded in 1976 which has developed and applied what it calls “a learnable strategy for communicating with and involving the public in project planning and decision making.” The company calls the process Consent Building.
The process is based on two principles that contradict some of the conventional thinking on community relations and overcoming the “not-in-my-backyard” syndrome. First, says Robbins, companies should make as much noise about a new project as possible, perhaps even to the extent of stirring up opposition. Second, they should focus their communications efforts on their most implacable critics, not in the hope of converting them but in the hope of earning at least grudging permission.
Robbins says he began looking for ways to improve relations between planners and local communities in the mid-70s. An urban planner himself, he saw several projects he considered to be sound and well conceived torpedoed, often by small but highly vocal critics. “I remember being so frustrated,” admits Robbins, “that I decided to devote more and more of my professional time to develop an approach for consulting with the public that would enable worthwhile projects to get implemented and avoid getting vetoed.”
Robbins says his company’s approach turns “traditional public relations thinking on its head.” Experienced community relations practitioners, particularly those who have been involved in highly controversial projects, will recognize many of the techniques Robbins recommends. But while the Consent Building process has similarities with classic conflict resolution thinking, Robbins insists that if his rules are following conflict can usually be avoided.
“Hopefully, if we get involved early enough, we never get to the point of a conflict,” he says. “In 90 percent of cases, conflict can be avoided.”
That makes the first step in the process especially counter intuitive. It involves courting conflict. Robbins suggests building a database of all those who are likely to oppose a project and to understand the basis of their opposition. Robbins actually suggests sending specially tailored letters to each constituency, designed to inflame their passions. “If you know there are people who are concerned with tax issues, you might write a letter with a warning about possible tax increases on the envelope.”
The point, Robbins says, is that people are going to learn about the project anyway, and draw their own conclusions. By confronting objections head on in the early stages, an organization can avoid later accusations that it was not honest about its intentions or willing to listen to the alternative suggestions of its critics.
As for those suggestions, Robbins says that planners need to study them seriously. “You can’t go in with the mindset that the solution you prefer is the only solution. You have to be open to other people’s ideas. Even if you end up rejecting those ideas, you can demonstrate that you did consider alternatives, and that can help make you veto proof in the event that you cannot persuade your critics to allow you to proceed without a legal challenge.”
The notion that project managers should focus their attention on their fiercest critics is a challenge to conventional communications thinking, which stresses building support among those who occupy the middle ground. Urban Alternatives’ strategy is built around the reality that even if 90 percent of people are on a company’s side, the remaining 10 percent can still derail a project.
“By recognizing the importance of veto power and learning through experience what the minimum requirements for getting agreement from opponents are, UA has made a real contribution to the field of community relations,” Robbins says.
According to Jim Marks, Senior Project Coordinator at Urban Alternatives, “Consent Building flies in the face of basic human instincts about how to respond to opposition. Our natural inclination is to avoid those who oppose us and cozy up to those who support us. UA’s approach runs counter to those innate feelings.
“Project opponents typically consist of those interests who could, or who at least believe they could, be hurt by a proposed project.  Unless the project proponent addresses the issues and concerns of potential opponents and allocates much of the community relations effort to giving those interests a voice in the project’s planning process, those interests will invariably turn into vetoers.”
Not surprisingly, Robbins has encountered resistance from some potential clients, who worry that the process he recommends will drag out the approval process and thus add to the expense.
“In the short term that may be true,” he says, “but in the long term this process saves time and money. In the short term, you will need to hold meetings and spend money on communication, but in the long term nothing is more expensive than having the community exercise its veto power. That can kill a project altogether.”
Robbins cites the example of a long-term waste-water project in Santa Rose, California. He says his company first presented its ideas to the client in 1988, but was rebuffed because of the presumed expense. “They decided on the best alternative and they didn’t listen to any of the other alternatives, and they were vetoed,” he says.
The client tried it the same way a second time, with the same result. Finally, they hired Urban Alternatives, and now—a decade after the problem was identified—the project seems ready to proceed.
The majority of Urban Alternatives’ clients to date have been municipalities and government agencies, but Robbins says the principles can be applied equally well by corporations facing siting issues.
The principles are spelled out in detail at the company’s web site, at www.urbanalternatives.com.
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