But sometimes our projects live or die depending on our ability to gain community support—or at least diffuse outright opposition. This is a task for which many technical professionals are ill prepared. I've witnessed some of them crash and burn in contentious public meetings or in private conversations with unhappy citizens or interest groups.
While these situations are often quite complex and unpredictable, there is usually a common thread. There is the failure to engage concerned citizens early, to give them a voice in the development of the project. There is an over-reliance on technical facts, methodology, and outcomes in trying to persuade nontechnical audiences. There is a tendency to dismiss some community concerns as unfounded, illogical, or uninformed. But the overriding factor when the relationship with the community turns sour, in my experience, is a basic lack of trust.
You cannot persuade someone who doesn't trust you. Several years ago, I provided some community relations consulting support for a major oil company. We were revising the community relations plan associated with the cleanup of a former refinery site. The focus of our efforts was determining how to repair a fractured relationship with the community that was causing remediation costs to escalate—by the millions.
The suggestions from the group were predictable. Some advocated drilling more groundwater monitoring wells to collect more data to convince the public that the threat to surrounding properties had been overstated. Some felt we needed to step up the PR campaign to better get the message out about the progress of the cleanup. Someone even suggested that the oil company make another peace offering to the city, by transferring land for use as a natural area.
As I listened to the discussion, it occurred to me that we were missing the main point. The citizens didn't trust us (and there were justifiable reasons for this). So it didn't matter what we said or did; we weren't going to get anywhere with the community until we restored a measure of trust. I shared my conclusion with the group, but the notion of building trust apparently sounded more complicated than drilling wells or mailing out brochures. We failed to solve the underlying problem.
However, months later the tide began to turn when we hired a specialist in developing impaired properties. He led a series of meetings with the public to discuss potential uses for the 600-acre refinery site once it had been remediated. For the first time, the community was given a meaningful role in helping determine the direction of the project. It dramatically changed the relationship, because it began to restore trust between the two parties.
That story illustrates a dynamic that I've seen repeatedly in interactions with communities where controversial projects are located. These situations push technical professionals into the uncomfortable realm of the personal, subjective, and emotional dimensions of working with people—people who may not trust your intentions nor really understand what you do. Taking the position of "trust me, I'm an expert" can readily backfire, because there's more to building trust than demonstrating your competency.
Indeed, research reveals three primary components of trust:
- Concern. Caring, audience focus, empathy, listening, service orientation
- Competency. Expertise, problem solving ability—where we're naturally most comfortable
- Candor. Honesty, openness, trustworthiness
With that backdrop, let me offer a few suggestions for gaining public support for your projects, especially when that support comes only grudgingly:
Solicit feedback early. The typical public meeting presents the proposed solution and asks for feedback. That doesn't give citizens much sense of control over the direction of the project. If you foresee potential for controversy at the start of a project, seek public input before you do the design or develop the solution. Focus first on gaining understanding of their perceptions and concerns, before attempting to change their opinions.
Meet privately with known or expected opponents. Community dissatisfaction is often stirred up by a vocal minority. Before these individuals frame the discussion in the media or at a public meeting, you want to attempt a preemptive strike—meeting with them to learn about their specific concerns, discuss potential options, and try to negotiate a satisfactory resolution. At the very least, you want to try to diffuse some of the passionate opposition that could sway public opinion.
Form a citizens advisory group. In the story above, our client avoided taking this requested step for fear of "losing control" of the project. That further inflamed the community, leading to a sympathetic State DEQ expanding the scope to try to allay public concerns, at an additional cost of tens of millions of dollars. Giving citizens input does not necessitate giving up control. On the contrary, it often enables you to reclaim it. There are variations of this general strategy, such as conducting a design charrette.
Don't forget that perceptions are reality. Technical professionals sometimes downplay public sentiments that lack factual or technical credibility. Their efforts to "educate" citizens about the "truth" can come across as demeaning and dismissive, further eroding trust. Don't overlook the fact that part of the solution you should be delivering is helping people feel better about the situation. Their perceptions—as misguided as they may be—are part of the problem you're trying to solve (which often involves gently changing those perceptions).
Identify and empathize with your audience. Undoubtedly you have much in common with the citizens who might oppose your project. You live in a community, have a family and want to protect their interests, dislike disruptions to your way of life, etc. You can go a long way to building trust by acknowledging a common frame of reference: "I can understand why you feel that way...I'm a parent too (or whatever)." But it must be genuine; few of us can fake empathy.
Communicate in terms the public can comprehend. This goes much deeper than simply avoiding unfamiliar technical jargon. It involves addressing the issues from their point of view. It's not just an engineering or architectural project; it's community asset, or threat, that affects the lives of the people who live or work there. Don't divorce the technical scope from its human benefits or impacts.
Build an alliance with local media. Get the local newspaper or radio talk show working against you, and your challenge to build trust with the community grows exponentially harder. As soon as you're ready to go public with news of the project, I'd recommend proactively engaging local media outlets. This may best be done with the help of public relations professionals.
Enlist credible third-party opinion leaders. When possible, seek support from influential, trusted members of the community. This is particularly helpful in smaller communities. Ask for their help in building bridges with concerned citizens and helping negotiate a resolution. Of course, you must first convince these individuals of the benefits of your project.