Environmental groups and concerned citizens are making it increasingly difficult for companies to develop any kind of project that has an environmental impact, even if that impact is positive. Many companies are bending over backwards to accommodate their critics, but is it worth the effort?
Two years ago, the Vancouver-based forest products company MacMillan Bloedel proposed building a huge, $1.5 billion paper recycling plant close to Sacramento. The plant would be the world's largest, capable of transforming 2,700 tons of waste paper a day into 100% recycled high quality newsprint.
In addition to making it easier to close the recycling loop and reducing landfill use, the plant offered other benefits: it would ultimately become West Sacramento's biggest taxpayer, providing close to 500 jobs.
While MacMillan Bloedel, working with California public affairs agency Stoorza Ziegaus & Metzger, was able to enlist the support of many environmentalists—including State Senator Lucy Killea, a leader in calling for new recycling legislation, and Californians Against Waste—some strident critics remained, and continue to create problems for the project.
At hearings to discuss the environmental impact of the plan, one local resident charged that the company had turned areas of Canada "into the Brazil of the north" through deforestation. Even after the local city council granted a Conditional Use Permit the opposition continued, with a group calling itself the Sacramento Valley Toxics Campaign filing a lawsuit against West Sacramento, claiming the city gave its approval without requiring full environmental disclosure.
"I guess we underestimated the intensity of the desire by certain environmental groups to have a perfect world," MacBlo chairman Robert Findlay recently told Forbes. "When we tell some of our colleagues what we're going through, they say, `You're out of your mind to have even tried it."'
The MacMillan Bloedel story is not unique.
In Ohio, the Swiss company Von Roll has been granted permission to operate a waste incinerator, but only after a lengthy—and in many ways exemplary—community relations and communication effort, numerous legal challenges, and the intervention of Vice President Al Gore, who promised during an election stop in the region that he would block the project.
Brad Ritter, a director at Columbus PR firm Paul Werth & Associates, which has helped Von Roll through its 13 year struggle to gain a permit for the plant, says the company went way beyond what was expected of it in terms of communicating with the community, and eventually won the support of the majority, but was never able to win over some very vocal critics.
"The economic arguments were important in terms of winning support," says Ritter. "But people also understand that this is actually an environmental improvement program. This waste exists, it needs to be disposed of, and most people see the value of a facility that disposes of this waste in the most efficient way we know."
Given the problems encountered by programs such as these—and countless others around the country—it would not be surprising if corporations were ready to abandon the open and honest communication approach and the desire to make their projects as environmentally-friendly as possible, but communications professionals say that to do so would be a mistake.
Alan Ziegaus, president of Stoorza Ziegaus & Metzger, believes that MacMillan Bloedel's open communication approach did pay off, despite the continuing hostility of a vocal minority.
"MB naively began the project believing the local environmental impacts were unimportant and that the plant would be approved simply because the public wanted more recycling," Ziegaus says. "But by staying on top of things from a communications standpoint, and being sure that any charges against the company were answered, we were able to create enormous goodwill, develop compromises on all outstanding issues and win unanimous approval from both the planning commission and the city council.
"There are some people who will never hear your arguments, but that should not stop you talking to all the others." Environmental communications professionals continue to counsel companies to invest in building relationships within the community, and offer several examples of occasions upon which open and honest communication has made life a little easier for developers.
In Texas, Laidlaw Waste Systems was seeking a permit to place a new landfill site adjacent to its current Texas operations, between a residential neighborhood and the controversial Trinity River. The site had been a municipal dump in the `40s, and the company's plans included remediation of this property and a conservation scheme that would reduce flooding problems prevalent in the neighborhood.
The Dallas office of environmental public affairs agency E. Bruce Harrison & Co. found during its research into local attitudes that the concerns of residents differed greatly depending on demographics: those in the less affluent neighborhood were more concerned with more immediate environmental problems such as recycling; those in a more affluent neighborhood put a higher priority on property values than on environmental impact; while the most affluent residents spent more time worrying about esoteric issues like the ozone layer and global warming. Communications efforts were tailored to each particular audience and were equally necessary in dealing with each.
"We have continued to get out there and provide accurate, candid information to people so that those who have open minds can make decisions that are based on facts rather than rhetoric," says Harrison senior vp Wade Gates. "The central idea of our strategy was that if anything was going to be said by our critics we wanted to be able to answer it quickly and with the most factual information."
Laidlaw produced a News for theNeighborhood newsletter series, created a video presentation and encouraged site tours, and conducted a series of one-to-one meetings with neighbors as well as luncheon for business leaders. The result was a petition from residents expressing support for the project, a stark contrast from the usual expression of opinion.
Finally, in suburban Chicago, Asea Brown Boveri faced opposition from environmentalists opposed to any form of incineration and from activists who felt that advances in waste processing undermined their efforts to reduce waste, when it attempted to construct a state-of-the-art recycling and incineration center.
Timing was important, with the announcement of the project being delayed until after the primary elections to ensure it would not become a campaign issue, and communications efforts—conducted with the help of Chicago PR agency Public Communications Inc. and environmental specialist Holt + Ross—included the appointment of a Citizens' Fact Finding Committee, a video explaining the need for the project, and a telephone hot line so residents could call with their questions about the project.
"Basically, we tried to keep communications as focused as possible, and as personal as possible," says PCI evp Alan Leahigh. "We went on the assumption that personal one-on-one meetings were better than telephone calls, that telephone calls were better than direct mail, and that direct mail was better than news releases."
That kind of communications plan may sound like hard work. It may occasionally seem unrewarding. Companies that put it into practice may have to get used to feeling unloved and unappreciated. But in the end it is still the best way to win the hearts and minds of those who make up the swing vote in such situations, the undecideds.