Overcoming opposition to waste-to-energy projects requires careful communications.
With a business plan in place, a supportive and committed political champion on your side and both internal and external teams deployed and ready to go, there’s still a long road ahead. But, by proactively managing a few critical lessons learned to prepare a project plan, proponents will be well-positioned to focus their resources on the assignments that lead to success.
Planning a Campaign
For government, there is still more to know. The media has not quite given up on the controversial angle that helps sell newspapers. And a stubborn group of citizens, which polls show to be remarkably small for their influence, refuse to accept that this project is the right thing to do.
Therefore, two of the most critical next steps include the development of a strategic public affairs (advocacy) plan and a proactive communications (outreach) campaign.
The goal of any advocacy campaign is to provide political “cover” for decision-makers by maintaining an appropriate presence throughout the entire process, from idea origination to facility construction. Showing up when an RFP is issued is almost always too late for any legitimate vendor. Nor is it reasonable in the case of a controversial project to leave a municipality to take all the political heat alone, whether it’s the early determination to proceed or the later resolution to approve.
Proponents must be part of the process, informing policy development and procurement, leading (or at least cooperating in) approvals and sharing in the responsibility of educating the public and media once the project is under construction and headed toward operation.
It is important to be sensitive to local politics. For instance, Durham Region in Ontario included a no-lobby provision in its procurement process for its energy-from-waste (EfW) plant, which was intended to prevent direct contact between vendors and council (though not between project opponents and council), thereby ensuring that the project was driven by the municipality and not by the EfW industry. So respecting the ban while ensuring the roll-out of a well-informed process required a creative approach.
The Canadian industry rallied support from the widest possible audiences by reaching out to stakeholders (beyond just the plant owners and operators) with a vested interest in EfW technology. Indeed, the formation of the Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition (CEFWC) was initiated by two industry associations (plastics and cement) that were hoping to build a network of support for EfW because of their concerns over low recycling rates and feedstock sourcing, which were resulting in lost energy opportunities.
With the ongoing support of engineers, technology providers, unions, property developers and others, the CEFWC currently is recognized by government and business as a credible industry association, speaking on core issues while advocating for progressive policies and regulatory standards.
Although industry advocates had no direct contact with municipal staff until all phases of the selection and approval process were complete, the CEFWC maintained a presence in the Durham Region via its website, speaking engagements and media outreach, while proactively educating other stakeholders, including citizens’ groups and provincial regulators, with face-to-face meetings.
The importance of investing in a credible industry association that will serve as a strong, consistent voice cannot be underestimated, as it is the most effective means of channeling information and key messages to and from all critical stakeholders.
This is no trivial point, because each audience capable of influencing decision makers has its own information sources from which they gather intelligence, and these too often generate different, uncontrolled messages, many of which are patently inaccurate or untrue. The only way to properly address key issues is to speak from a single position of authority. For example, while progress was being made in Ontario with proven EfW technologies, other industry vendors promoting unproven conversion technologies sucked much of the oxygen from the debate, advancing competing claims in the media and pitching “no risk” deals to municipalities. The establishment of a credible industry association ensured that government policy-makers, regulators and legislators had an objective source of information to cut through the clutter.
A successful public affairs campaign will identify all relevant political stakeholders and understand their trigger points, recognizing that these individual decision makers play to different audiences. For example, a municipal council will be most sensitive to the opinions of ratepayers and local media, whereas provincial/state officials will care more about the views of cabinet and finance officials. A properly coordinated public affairs campaign must ensure that each of these groups hears the same message, though framed in language aligned with their goals and expectations—a delicate task, indeed.
Of course, any contemporary campaign involves lobbyists. Many are skilled communicators who understand social media and polling; however, beware the lobbyist who:
- Uses name dropping rather than issue analysis for credibility;
- Knows more about you than about what they will do for you;
- Can’t provide a realistic time frame for a decision (usually because vague timelines result in extended fee schedules); and
- Pitches a plan that depends on experience gained with one level of government when the task at hand requires expertise honed in another jurisdiction.
Building Public Support
From the outset, and regardless of the nature of the assignment, project proponents must embrace the need for extensive public consultation. The fact is that there’s no way to avoid it, nor should that be a goal. Proponents should seek out public events as a means of engaging the most active and articulate citizens, identifying friends and foes and promoting the project to the community and media.
Of course, early meetings may be unpleasant, full of misinformation, misinterpretation and accusations from a small handful of opponents. However, solid grassroots support is built on arguments patiently delivered to people who are willing to listen to a full and complete explanation of the issue from both sides.
In either case, primary presentation responsibilities should be delegated to the best communicators, who can then call on technical, legal, environmental, investment and professional expertise as required.
As with any project or political campaign, it is important to align communications goals and objectives with key audiences.
The outreach documentation does not need to be too sophisticated or complicated—though accuracy, transparency and accountability are the watch words. Standard-issue communications tools, including fact-based briefing notes, frequently asked questions and nontechnical consultation material using simple language—without jargon—will accomplish the job.
Regulators will require technical data and analysis; media will appreciate historical background; the general public typically wants to understand the basics: Who is making the decision? Who is bidding on the work? Why this project and not some alternative? How much will it cost? What are the benefits? How will it affect taxpayers and neighbors? What’s the timeline for decision-making?
Establishing a website is an essential communications tool because it facilitates the ability to both push and pull key messages, policy positions and experiences elsewhere. With universal access, this is the face of the project to the world; it’s where the case is made with science, testimonials, graphics and any other useful communications device.
Social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are increasingly effective outreach tools, though they do require constant monitoring and reaction.
Focus groups can be organized to test both messages and support within a host community, which will provide important insight into campaign refinements.
Polling 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.
A Word of Caution
Finally, while social media inform business decisions all the way down the line, they are still not treated as legitimate measures of public input or as formats given equal weight with traditional forms of outreach. Social media provide direct access to public opinion, and yet in too many jurisdictions they are 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 decisions. This must change.
The fact is that politicians trust their gut instincts when it comes to controversy and intuitively understand the value of polls depends entirely on who controls “the ask” and how the question is presented.
The first step in managing opposition is to acknowledge that it is real and a permanent feature of every public affairs campaign.
It is also important to understand that the “opponents” who fill the community hall during 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, which may number in the hundreds at the outset, typically arrive with some skepticism and curiosity but will usually see the merits of the project once presented with sensible, logical, fact-based arguments; their numbers will decline in direct proportion to the transparency of the outreach and quality of the information being shared. The latter, which can be counted on one or two hands, come to the process with an entrenched ideological position, care nothing for public goods and will not acknowledge the positive benefits of the project under any circumstances.
Relationships with local/ad hoc stakeholder groups and individuals must be nurtured, not assumed. And the way to stand up to criticism from “jet-setting celebrity” environmentalists is to maintain an on-the-ground presence, close to the project. Soliciting support from other communities that have adopted similar policies and/or implemented similar technologies can be helpful.
“NIMBY-ists” and “zero-wasters” should be dealt with head-on by politely recognizing that while their ideas are laudable, they are also highly impractical, many generations away and wholly ineffective on a large scale in a realistic time frame.
Working with Media
Serendipity is not a strategy, and hoping for positive media coverage is the easiest way to lose control of the agenda. This is because, quite simply, the good news is never good enough…and selling the “controversy” is too easy.
Like the opposition, moving forward productively means accepting the fact that it may not be possible to get media on your side entirely and that just a handful of opponents may continuously garner more sensational attention than the most unbiased and dedicated broadcast/press campaign. Quite often the most well-researched scientific evidence will lie waiting for publication, while project opponents sow fear with baseless stories of suffering children, toxic emissions or polluted water tables.
With a diligent approach, the media will come around. Circulating background information in the form of simple, honest, unbiased documentation is key. Address all negative coverage (biased innuendo, out-dated stereotypes and false accusations) with coordinated quick-to-press responses in the form of letters to the editor, opinion pieces, freelance articles, etc. Deal with skeptics and sensationalists directly. Editorial board meetings are another highly effective means of modifying media perspectives and attitudes.
Regardless of how volatile, upsetting, tense or provocative the debate becomes, proponents must maintain a civil tone and keep a smile close by. There’s no easier or more sure way to lose support than with a rude remark or an untimely snarl.
In the face of intractable public policy challenges, communities everywhere are searching for new, innovative solutions. Because new often means unknown or controversial, it usually portends a long and difficult road to approval and implementation.
But it doesn’t mean that beneficial alternative approaches are impossible, even in the face of citizen opposition and a skeptical, sensationalizing media. With a diligent, prescribed strategy based on lessons learned, proponents will be well-positioned with a business plan focused on genuine community benefits that go beyond just the revenue stream. They will have the support of a strong political champion and a balanced, well-rounded team.
Combined with a dedicated and collaborative public affairs and communications campaign, executed with patience and diligence, the process of winning over public opinion and acquiring regulatory approval becomes quite manageable.
The author is president and CEO of Prester John Public Affairs, Toronto.
Part one of the Community Relations Series, “Approval Process,” is available in the January/February 2013 issue of Renewable Energy from Waste, online at www.rewmag.com/rew0213-projects-public-approval.aspx.