Paul Holmes 06 Jul 2001 // 11:00PM GMT
In 1996, Alliance Pipeline proposed to construct and operate a 36-inch diameter, 1,900-mile underground natural gas pipeline from Fort St. John, British Columbia to Chicago, Illinois - North America’s largest natural gas pipeline of its kind. On December 1, 2000, the vision became a reality when the pipeline delivered its first commercial shipment of natural gas to the U.S. grid. Realizing a project of this magnitude would affect many landowners and communities, Alliance worked with Padilla Speer Beardsley (PSB) to design a communications program to foster positive relationships with all stakeholders. Alliance wanted a different strategic approach than the industry norm, which tended to force a project through using eminent domain rights. The company chose instead to work with stakeholders, being upfront, honest and inclusive about project details. To our knowledge, no previous pipeline project has utilized such an open and proactive communications strategy.
PROGRAM OBJECTIVES AND CHALLENGES
Key Target Audiences
Local elected officials
State elected officials, regulatory/admin staff
U.S. Senators, Reps & staff from 4 states
FERC (fed regulators)
Keep legal/regulatory delays to a minimum (each lost day of construction in the U.S. would have cost Alliance more than $500,000.00) by establishing relationships with all stakeholders within the first five months of the initiation of the communications efforts, keeping them informed and responding to concerns; participation of at least 40 people per open house session.
Disseminate accurate information early to reduce rumors/misunderstandings, focus on opinion leaders by establishing relationships as quickly as possible;
Create/maintain open communication, and build constructive relationships with stakeholders;
Manage issues and information to demonstrate trustworthiness of Alliance; local/regional/national need for, and benefits of the project; maximize regulatory cooperation and endorsement of project.
A wide array of stakeholders with varied agendas;
Historical practices in industry foster an attitude of mistrust. Many landowners had a bad experience 20 years earlier with another pipeline in the area;
In the US, the pipeline crosses nearly 3,000 landowners’ property. Permanent land easements needed to be purchased from them at a reasonable price;
Opposition could gain popular support if not diffused early.
In communications theory, the concept of “first voice” is well established as being advantageous in establishing perception of controversial issues. Best results come from a proactive communications approach, not reactive. This was the strategy that provided the foundation for this community relations program.
The first step was to utilize a full range of research techniques to identify the attitudes, concerns and issues impacting various stakeholder groups and allow us to test messages and identify those most persuasive with key stakeholders.
Communication team members held one-on-one meetings with elected officials, community leaders, city/county staff, and representatives of chambers of commerce and farm bureaus in counties through which the pipeline would cross. These meetings allowed us to provide information, gain insight into constituent attitudes and issues, and determine how a project of this size would impact rural communities economically and socially.
Eight focus groups, two per state, were held with landowners/residents along the route to further explore attitudes, issues, and concerns. We were able to broadly identify stakeholders’ most critical issues.
Telephone surveys were conducted with 1,600 randomly selected residents along the route. The survey established a benchmark of the level of public awareness, understanding and acceptance of the project; identified attitudes/beliefs correlating with support/opposition; and tested specific messages for effectiveness in building support. Segmentation analysis revealed four group profiles which helped identify the type of individual perspective to address and thus tailor messages.
At the conclusion of Open House meetings, we gathered information from an exit survey. Of 1,587 participants, 600 completed surveys. Many who disagreed with the project said our proactive communication outreach was a welcome change over past projects.
Throughout the project’s four years, Alliance and PSB have maintained the commitment to open communications through a variety of community meetings, mailings and one-on-one conversations. Stakeholders received a continuous flow of project information and had access to top company officials on a regular basis.
Team Training: Two, day-long risk communication and media training workshops were conducted to identify issues, refine research-based messages with deeper supplementary messages and train all team members from a variety of disciplines in their use. These were held prior to Open Houses;
Open Houses: Public meetings are a tactic often used to introduce a project of this sort, but tend to provide forums for opponents and limit real information flow. Our Open House strategy used several stations, each staffed by subject matter experts, to address key issues. Attendees were able to spend as much or as little time as desired on any issue. This approach allows stakeholders to discuss the pipeline and their specific concerns in-depth with team experts, while eliminating the opportunity for opponents to control the meeting. Program execution involved 32 team members (8 per state) to cover 16 meetings in four states over a four week period.
Community Outreach: While teams were in communities for open houses, briefings were held with important groups… primarily elected officials and media… to answer questions in depth and establish personal relationships. We also invited grade school students to visit, understand the project, and remind their parents that we were in town for evening Open Houses. Interdisciplinary teams met with Chambers of Commerce prior to construction to establish expectations, address concerns and introduce contractors.
Public Speaking: PSB conducted presentations to government agencies, civic organizations and safety departments throughout the four states to update them on the project and answer any questions.
Emergency Response Meetings: Communications team members met with emergency response teams in each of the 42 counties through which the pipeline passes to discuss expectations during the transition into operations and the safe, appropriate response in case of an emergency. This forum also allowed for the introduction of the operations team who would have a permanent presence in the communities.
Quarterly Newsletter: Communications team members wrote and distributed quarterly newsletters to all stakeholders along the route.
Government Relations: Phone calls and meetings were conducted with elected and public officials at both the state and federal level to keep them informed of project developments/issues. PSB hired lobbyists to maintain relationships and identify legislation that might affect the project.
Media Relations: PSB produced and distributed targeted messages, and followed up with more than 200 media outlets on project developments/issues, as well as responded to their inquiries and requests.
Following two years of construction (the largest construction project in North America at that time), the Alliance Pipeline began commercial operations on December 1, 2000. Achieving campaign objectives and keeping promises made early on, resulted in zero delays and zero dollars lost due to legislative or regulatory issues, a primary goal.
Dissemination of accurate information early was successfully completed with more than 200 opinion leader visits in four states within two weeks; numerous community meetings and proactive media relations.
Creating and maintaining open lines of communication with stakeholders was accomplished with the successful completion of 16 open houses in four states, reaching nearly 1,600 participants in the first five months of the community relations program; through distribution of quarterly project update newsletters to more than 5,000 stakeholders and regular visits to affected communities.
Anticipating issues, communicating about them proactively, and responding to questions through articles in newsletters reduced landowner mistrust in dealings. Elected officials at all levels have thanked us for our cooperation in managing constituent concerns and local media.
Achieved goal to maximize local positive awareness and support, minimize impact of local opponents, lay groundwork for more productive landowner relations and reduce the need for additional regulatory reviews.
Received praise from regulatory bodies, elected and public officials, pipeline associations and individual landowners regarding Alliance’s communications approach to the project. Following this precedent-setting program, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revised federal guidelines for similar projects, setting more aggressive community relations standards much like the ones Alliance implemented.
The operations team that transitioned in over the past year has expressed its confidence that communications team efforts have created a positive climate as it becomes a permanent fixture in the communities along the route.