Tom Bartikoski, a PRSA Fellow and PSB's most senior advisor on public affairs and crisis communications recently shared his experience and advice with attendees of Waste Expo 97. The conference is the nation's largest trade show for businesses that operate and manage the waste collection systems in the country... everything from landfills to recycling programs, composting programs, methane gas reclamation, waste incinerators and other technologies. Here is a synopsis of Tom's presentation.
Building support for controversial projects is a process that can be approached systematically just as one would approach similar projects, including:
- siting high pressure natural gas line
- siting high voltage powerline
- siting spent nuclear fuel storage facility
- building support for new vehicle emission testing program
- building support for toll roads
- building support for, and participation in, recycling program
- building support for legislative proposals and government initiatives
- building support for a solid waste incinerator
- building support for an integrated solid waste plan
- siting a landfill
- siting a chemical handling facility
The message is that your challenge is both fundamental and universal and you can benefit from those who have tackled such controversy in the past by applying the following principles:
- Yes, this is rocket science...or at least science-based...so get help from people who can help you apply all the research and experience that will help increase your chances of success.
- Plan ahead and start early...your opponents have access to very well developed programs and extensive training...they prepare well in advance and their message is much easier than yours to deliver.
- Use opinion research to help you understand your audience and what they know or don't know about your issues and your specific project or proposal. What dimensions of the issue are most important to them as they weigh whether or not your proposal is good for their family and community...
- Test different ways of influencing the audience's opinion to predict which points of view will be effective for you, and to prepare for those that are most helpful to your opponents.
- Make sure your research is actionable...based on a conceptual plan to communicate, involve and influence that audience...and make sure your research is designed to clarify your assumptions and give direction to your advocacy.
- Understand that customer satisfaction or generally favorable feelings toward your company rarely translate into support for your project or other policy initiatives.
- Realize that consumers seldom understand your business. If the audience has to understand your business to understand or appreciate the impact or benefits of the policy you are advocating...make sure you've explained the business and it's impact on them BEFORE you try to put the current project or policy into context. Try to avoid educating an audience about two difficult concepts. One controversial proposal at a time is plenty.
- Recognize that the media focus on conflict as the vehicle to tell their story. Minimize public focus on your opponents or your disagreements. Focus instead on the positives and benefits of your own proposals.
- Consider involving opponents to discuss whether some level of working together can give each of you more of what you want than open confrontation and "winner takes all" conflict. This is not "win-win" -- where both sides get everything they want -- but a commitment to looking for "mutual gains" compared to your reasonably expected outcome from conflict alone.
- Monitor your issues as they develop over time to look for changes, new perspectives, evidence your efforts are working (or not working), effective opposition tactics or messages and impact on the media. This helps you adapt your program to a "dynamic" process – which controversial issues always assure.
Tom Bartikoski, APR, Fellow PSRA is Senior Vice President with Padilla Speer Beardsley Inc., a Minneapolis-based firm that provides marketing, investor, employee and government public relations services.