Since 1990, BMF has specialized in helping clients manage a wide variety of contentious and challenging community relations issues. While we've seen, heard, learned and taught a lot over those 27 years, a two and a half year engagement to assist a client seeking to undertake a controversial fracking project really helped us galvanize our experience into important lessons for others to learn as well.
Here's part one of our two-part post on managing hostile stakeholders on a long-term project. We'll post part two in a couple of weeks. Happy reading!
1. Anticipate the unexpected and never take anything for granted
As you scope your project, conduct an honest and clinical assessment of its impact and perceived impact on the people around you (both favorable and unfavorable). Don't assume anything ("Texas is an oil and gas state. People are used to what we're planning to do."). Carefully consider the risks and perceived risks from the outside in and formulate the messaging, communications vehicles and plans for dealing with a public that may not see things the same way you do.
2. Know about yourself what your opponents will soon find out
The first thing a vigorous opponent will do to line up others against you is to do a deep dive into your corporate reputation and your history in your projects and other communities. The internet, regulatory agencies and the courts provide a wealth of history on your company, such as environmental or workplace violations and penalties, bad press, ugly lawsuits etc. If your history is positive, don't be afraid to make that point or to line up high-level third party advocates who will resonate with project stakeholders. Be prepared to address all of this and more and to shift the discussion to the positive impacts you've had on other people and communities.
3. Engage your friends early on and give them appropriate ways to help
This would include others in your industry who see through the wild-eyed allegations of those who abide by no litmus test of the facts, current and potential vendors, investors and employees. Keep them informed of progress and upcoming events such as permit hearings and public meetings. Avoid putting them in a bad spot unless there's no way around it, and above all, thank them appropriately all along the way.
4. Keep your ears close to the ground and don't just talk to your friends
While it is always easier and more comforting to talk to your friends, they're not always the best sources of what's happening behind the scenes and especially among the people who don't like what you're doing. Seek advice and input from people beyond your direct sphere of influence and take their advice and opinions seriously.
5. Avoid making your differences of opinion personal
No matter how testy the audience or how obnoxious and unfounded the claim, resist the temptation to fight fire with fire. Even people who don't agree with you will give you at least some points for conducting yourself in a professional and courteous manner. By being defensive or responding in-kind you may actually be doing your opponents a favor and you certainly won't be making any friends with people on the fence.
(One of the most gratifying aspects of the project mentioned briefly above, was engaging several of the more active but restrained opponents in discussions that were calm, measured and light-hearted. As the project neared its completion more than one strident opponent took time to thank me (and our client) for conducting ourselves in a civil and professional manner throughout a very long and challenging process.)
6. Remember who your audience is
Constantly stay focused on what and who really matters. Getting drug down the rabbit hole into long and ugly debates with people who won't like you or your project no matter what you do is a waste of time and is counter-productive. Remember who matters most: regulators, permitting agencies, opinion elites and, often, the news media.
In early May, we'll post the second half of our lessons learned for your consideration and feedback in the hope that our experiences prove useful to you, your company or clients.
For more information about BMF's ability to help you manage challenging stakeholder relationships and your corporate reputation, contact Greg Beuerman at 1.504.524.3342 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since first offering our crisis response services 1990, BMF has become a global leader in the field of crisis communication and reputation management for scores of energy companies, domestic and international shipping companies, railroads, truckers, manufacturers and more. For information about how BMF can help put an appropriate reputational management process and protocol in place for you, contact Greg Beuerman at email@example.com.