August 6, 2013
PresterJohn brought these lessons learned (and written in our blog) to the Canadian energy-from-waste industry, resulting in exponential growth over a reasonably modest timeframe.
But the true measure of success may not actually be realized for a few more years, as there are now dozens of communities across the country with the widest possible range of demographics – from small seasonal villages to mid-sized cities to large urban agglomerations – that are currently investigating their waste management options, knowing that EFW is safe, sustainable and affordable.
And it’s all because the industry embraced a best practices approach to communications, business development and advocacy.
Focus on a Long-Term Strategy
August 5, 2013
Faced with difficult public policy challenges, communities everywhere are searching for new, innovative solutions. However, “new” can lead to “controversy,” which can result in an unnecessarily long and difficult road to approval and implementation.
Moreover, in seeking to produce a transparent and predictable result regardless of time or cost, public officials do not face the same expectations as private vendors, so the process seldom reflects a balance of interests. Whereas private companies want to economize on costs and reduce timelines, public officials seek to maximize citizen input and minimize any unnecessary externalities.
But with a diligent strategy based on delivering genuine community benefits, gaining the support of a strong political champion and engaging a balanced, well-rounded team, project proponents can turn a skeptical public and critical media into supporters and champions, as well as winning over public opinion and acquiring regulatory approval.
Be Patient with the Media, Speak Slowly, a Little Louder Perhaps
August 4, 2013
Serendipity is not a strategy, and hoping for positive media coverage is the easiest way to lose control of the agenda.
Good news is never good enough; selling the “controversy” is too easy. Moving forward productively means accepting the fact that it may not be possible to get media entirely on-side, and that just a handful of opponents may continually garner more sensational attention than the most unbiased and dedicated broadcast/press campaign.
Quite often, the most well researched article will lie waiting for publication when there is a project opponent sowing baseless stories of fear. Circulating background information in the form of simple, honest, unbiased documentation is key.
Editorial board meetings are a highly effective means of modifying media perspectives and attitudes. Negative coverage should be addressed promptly in the form of letters to the editor, opinion pieces and freelance articles. Persistence is critical.
Maintain an On-the-Ground, Local Presence
August 3, 2013
Relationships with local/ad hoc stakeholder groups and individuals must be nurtured, not assumed.
The way to stand up to criticism from “jet-setting celebrity” environmentalists is to maintain an on-the-ground presence, close to the project, in order to remain accessible and available to any and all stakeholders.
And because it is true that all politics is local, it‘s important to be sensitive to local political preferences, which means that project proponents must be creative and proactive with their media relations and stakeholder outreach to ensure that they are moving opinion despite attempts – no matter how well-intentioned – to stifle it.
Accept the Presence of Permanent Opposition
August 2, 2013
The first step in managing opposition is to acknowledge that it is real, and a permanent feature of every public affairs campaign. However, the “opponents” who fill the community hall during the early public meetings are not the same as the “zealots” who will work against the project at all costs for the entire duration.
The former typically arrive with some skepticism and curiosity, and will see the merits of the project once presented with sensible, fact-based arguments; their numbers will decline in direct proportion to the transparency of the outreach and information. The latter, which can be usually counted on one or two hands, come to the process with an ideological position and will not acknowledge the positive benefits of the project under any circumstances.
Opposition is the first rule of politics; accepting the impossibility of convincing the zealots on the merits of a winning project should come as a relief. These folks represent the “long tail of the bell curve,” so their strident position should actually free-up resources that can be invested in genuine, honest communications with the vast majority of citizens and taxpayers who want plain answers, to understand.
Appreciate the Limits of Social Media
August 1, 2013
Despite the pervasiveness of social media, it is important to understand that it is still not treated as a legitimate measure of public input, a format given equal weight with traditional forms of outreach.
Although social media provides direct access to public opinion, in too many jurisdictions it is not treated with the same validity as public meetings. Polling informs election strategy everywhere, but is seldom used as a primary means of informing policy formation and development. Maybe the Internet is still too new. It exists out of political control. Or maybe the technology is still just too easily manipulated – after all, the value of public opinion polls depends entirely on who controls “the ask” and how the question is presented.
Politicians still fear the angry few, even when the data shows that the loud voice of hysteria represents a tiny minority.
Leverage Science and Technology
July 31, 2013
A website is essential and social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are critical tools to push/pull messages for any public affairs campaign.
Focus groups can be organized to test both messages and support within a host community while polling (Internet, automated phone system, traditional telephone interviews, etc.) may validate public support and provide evidence that this “controversial” project is actually an electoral winner to elected politicians, who live and die by polling.
Keep Communications Simple, Fact-Based, Jargon-Free
July 30, 2013
Outreach documentation does not need to be too sophisticated or complicated—though accuracy, transparency and accountability are the priorities in any public affairs campaign involving controversial issues.
Success is possible with standard-issue communications tools, including fact-based briefing notes, “frequently asked questions” and non-technical consultation material using simple language that is jargon-free.
Embrace Public Outreach
July 29, 2013
Project proponents must embrace an extensive public consultation process, from beginning to end, including church basement community meetings, cable television debates, council presentations and regulatory briefings.
There’s no way to avoid these outreach exercises, nor should that be a goal. Proponents should seek out public events as a means of engaging the most active and articulate citizens—both friends and foes, and especially those with an open mind.
Identify the Trigger Points
July 28, 2013
A successful public affairs campaign will identify all key political stakeholders and understand their trigger points related to the key issues – what will bring comfort and what might scare them off.
Recognizing that all these individual decision-makers play to different audiences, all communications and public affairs activities must be relentlessly clear, presenting key messages tailored specifically to select audiences, which will ensure divergent groups come to the same conclusion within the context of their own interests.
Commit Early to Education and Information Sharing
July 27, 2013
The goal of any advocacy campaign is to provide political “cover” for a positive decision by maintaining an appropriate presence throughout the entire process—from idea origination to facility construction.
Proponents must be a part of the process, informing policy development, procurement, leading (or at least co-operating) in the approvals phase, and then sharing the responsibility of educating the public and media once the project is under construction and headed towards operations.
Showing up when an RFP is issued is almost always too late for any legitimate vendor.
Close the Knowledge Gap
July 26, 2013
Proponents typically know more about proposed solutions than regulators, so the real challenge with any approvals process is closing the knowledge gap (between what is claimed and what can be controlled).
This will elevate the quality of the technical deliberations so that regulators and proponents share a common and mutually acceptable level of understanding.
Face-to-face meetings are a productive means of bridging the gap; sharing peer-reviewed studies will insert third-party objectivity into the deliberations; highlighting the positive experiences in other jurisdictions can empower decision-makers.
Build a Diversified Team
July 25, 2013
One strong political leader may drive the project, but success depends on building a well-balanced and diversified project team. Getting the right talent means finding the right mix between policy-specific knowledge and other forms of mission-critical experience.
This may require the secondment of employees from other departments where they may have gained intimate familiarity with approvals and regulations, project management (dealing directly with vendors and consultants), corporate history (gained through years of employment) or diplomacy (by virtue of reporting directly and frequently to the sitting members of a municipal council and/or legislative committee).
External professionals should come to the assignment with a proven track record, skills that complement staff resources and a peerless reputation that will mitigate any doubt or challenges to the decision-making process.
Negotiate a Win-Win-Win
July 24, 2013
Americans, Canadians and Europeans hold distinctive world views, and therefore place different values on both the process and results of contractual negotiations. So it is prudent to hire homegrown talent that understands the local language and business culture, and are also most familiar with the political geography of the community.
Sharing long-term profits, or marketing secondary products collaboratively through private-public partnerships, can improve the quality of any deal. Setting unregulated standards, such as sustainability measures, elevated recycling rates and on-site emissions reporting, can produce a win-win-win scenario.
Offer More than Money
July 23, 2013
A winning proposal needs to make an argument that establishes the merits of the project in a way that goes beyond costs and revenues. It should solve a long-term problem with a made-in-my-backyard solution. It should limit potential spillovers, ensuring problems created by the project effect only those who benefit from the proposal or have a direct connection to the project.
Including sustainable attributes is key, particularly if it also demonstrates a long-term commitment to continuous investment in community renewal and quality of life.
Create a Favourable Political Majority
July 22, 2013
With a political champion on-side, creating a favorable political majority is possible by highlighting the technological, political and financial benefits of the project that best align with legislative and regulatory objectives.
In the case of EFW, this might explain how a new plant satisfies international, federal, provincial/state goals related to renewable energy, sustainable environmental practices, technological innovation and economic renewal.
For the local audience, the alignment may come in the form of value-added job creation, increased property tax assessment, and alternative revenue sources.
Nurture a Political Champion
July 10, 2013
Establishing a supportive relationship with a respected, independent politician is an essential early step. This “star” candidate will have to speak positively about the project and the vendors, understand the political (electoral) opportunities and risks of the project, and be willing to stand up to an impetuous council, strident opponents and a sensationalizing media.
The industry doesn’t have to enter into a formal alliance or declaration, though it must be prepared to match the political investment in the promotion of the project, engage appropriately in the debate with collaborative communications, ease the political burden by educating the public and media with fact-based evidence, and otherwise work in manner that respects local political protocols.
Establish Industry Consensus
July 10, 2013
The first most important step for the EFW industry in Canada may have been the establishment of the Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition (CEFWC). This organization is dedicated to promoting the benefits of EFW in the context of an integrated waste management hierarchy.
It presents the science behind the solution, avoiding any commercial messages. And, because it is both vendor and technology neutral, it has served as an objective, trusted resource for policy makers, regulators and municipal officials.
The work of the CEFWC has been particularly effective as a means of communicating strong, focused messages to the public and media in the face of lobbying bans and other political idiosyncrasies imposed by local councils.
Energy From Waste
July 10, 2013
“It can’t be done” was what I heard people mutter as the meeting room emptied. “There’s no way any government in Canada will approve an energy-from-waste plant.”
Five years later, the EFW industry is about to double in size.
So how did it grow by 100 per cent over a few short years when so many experts thought growth of any kind to be impossible?
In short, it’s a rate of success made possible by taking a diligent, strategic approach to project development, and by proactively focusing on transparent communications.
The industry continues to face opposition from groups too quick to label EFW as “controversial,” but the future is bright because, going-forward, vendors, regulators and government will continue to apply some of the most important PresterJohn “lessons learned.”