August 22, 2011
By Al Maiorino
You want to build a biomass development. You make a business plan, collect the proper paperwork, and prepare for the approval process.
You want to build a biomass development. You make a business plan, collect the proper paperwork, and prepare for the approval process. All of a sudden, the zoning commission holds off on granting a permit. Why? Residents near the proposed site have created an opposition group to fight the project. Despite the fact that the new plant would generate renewable heat and energy for many communities and improve the local economy, the community doesn’t seem to understand these benefits. The residents say the new facility would be too close to their homes and may potentially be hazardous to their health. They say it would create too much noise, pollution, and traffic, and would obstruct their views. You realize the opposition is a roadblock that may halt or even destroy the project. Now what do you do?
This problem is not so uncommon. It is called the “not in my backyard” syndrome, or NIMBYism. This practice of communal opposition to development blossomed in the 1980s. During that time, community concerns were reasonable and often justified. While those days are gone, the sentiment of opposition remains, and the “backyard” has grown so vastly that NIMBYism affects companies all over the world. However, with modern technology and strict government regulations, the inconvenience caused by any sort of development is usually reduced to a minimum.
Getting the message out
Some steps are necessary to ensure that the proper message is getting out to the public. Very often, the opposition stems from misinformation and poor communication between project representatives and the community. In this case, it is better to play on the offensive. Instead of waiting for the opposition to grow, present it with the facts.
It is necessary to look for local support and build allies to form a supporter coalition. First and foremost, identify and create a database of local residents who are in favour of, against, or undecided about the project. A good way to begin is by carrying out a poll or a phone bank, asking local residents about their view of the renewable energy industry in general and your development plan in particular. The survey results may be published to showcase the positive attitude in the community toward the venture.
Once the database is created, it should be maintained and updated frequently for the campaign management to be aware of changes in local opinion. One way to do this is through a targeted direct mail and/or advertising campaign. In addition, a strong social media campaign is a modern and necessary tool to spread your message, reach out to the community, and provide supporters with a communication outlet.
Now that you have distinguished supporters from opposition, the next step is to reach out to third-party groups that support the development. These groups could be anything from small businesses to a local decision maker. Companies or groups with whom you have had a positive relationship or who will benefit from your project should be encouraged to participate in the campaign.
Residents should express their support through writing letters to their elected officials or newspapers. Those who are looking to support further can attend public hearings, where they can speak about the benefits of the project. Most likely, an independent pro-group will have emerged by now and will actively participate in all aspects of the campaign.
You may choose to fight NIMBY on your own. However, experience shows that hiring a specialized firm will provide you with the necessary tools and tactics to ensure a victory for your development. Trained professionals from a grassroots firm will make sure that the correct message from your company is being distributed to the community and that the silent majority is heard.
The way you approach the situation will make all the difference. You can choose to ignore the NIMBY fight, avoid communicating with the local community, and take the situation to an unnecessary level of tension. Or, you and/or a specialized team can develop a strategy, engage in conversation with the community, and encourage project proponents to voice their support.
Al Maiorino is president of Public Strategy Group, which specializes in grassroots campaigns for development projects that are experiencing community opposition or extensive hurdles. Maiorino has developed and managed multiple corporate public affairs campaigns in a variety of industries such as retail development, power plant/wind farm projects, and housing/residential projects.
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