Anyone who has worked in wind energy development has likely seen how community relations can make or break a project. A small group of motivated opponents can put experienced developers on the defensive, create costly delays and, ultimately, threaten a project’s existence.
Social media makes these risks even greater. One person armed with nothing more than bad information and an internet connection can organize opposition, circulate petitions and attract media attention in a matter of days.
Developers seeking to prevent conflict and minimize local opposition need a community relations plan based on clear, honest and responsive communication. Proactive outreach and relationship-building can make a huge difference in eliminating the public’s uncertainty about a project, diffusing opposition, and building trust between a developer and the local community.
Community relations should be more than just an additional task added to a development manager’s to-do list. Local sentiment about a project can directly impact your bottom line – so it’s worth investing the time and resources required to do it right.
There is no one-size-fits-all plan for community relations, but there are best practices that can benefit any project. The following are five key community relations tactics that every project should follow.
1. Don’t try to hide
Many developers prefer to avoid attracting attention, hoping that that they won’t have to deal with the public. That approach is a little like driving without a seatbelt; you’re fine until something unexpected happens, and then you’re dead.
A lack of communication can, in itself, be enough to generate opposition. There have been times in which neighbors who couldn’t find basic details on a project started calling their local paper and elected officials to demand answers. The resulting controversy could have been prevented by a basic fact sheet and a project website.
Project owners and developers should establish themselves as the primary source of information about their project. If they don’t, neighbors will happily fill in the blanks with rumors, assumptions and worst-case scenarios they find on the internet. The longer you stay silent, the more misinformation you’ll have to overcome.
2. Do your homework
Every community has its own values, influencers and hot-button issues. Before a company starts working in a new area, it needs to understand what life is like for the people living there. The perspective of staff who have spent time in the community is valuable, but their insights should always be combined with objective data on the local economy, history, demographics and culture.
For example, local tax revenue could be a crucial selling point for communities worried about school funding, while areas with a high percentage of retirees might be more concerned about sound and visual impacts. Communities that have been burned by developers in the past will be focused on the developer’s track record, while local jobs might be more important in areas with high unemployment.
Reviewing census data, planning documents, local press stories and social media content will help you develop the right approach to work with a specific community. A public-opinion survey is another tool that can provide powerful data about the community’s attitude toward wind power development.
Building an overview of the community will help you frame the way you talk about the project, evaluate the risk of local opposition, and identify likely supporters and opponents.
3. Know your stakeholders
Every community has members who are influential and outspoken enough to set the tone around an issue. These folks can turn an average project into a hot topic and inspire strong opinions in their otherwise neutral neighbors. Your research should aim to identify these influencers.
For instance, if one well-respected farmer feels snubbed by your development team, you might suddenly find that all his neighbors and relatives suddenly oppose the project. On the other hand, taking the time to meet with one well-connected local attorney might lead to more support from local businesses and elected officials.
Understanding local stakeholders and their priorities will help you anticipate who needs to be handled with special care. Build a list of key stakeholders sorted by those you should inform, consult with or engage in the project’s development. Track your team’s interactions with key stakeholders so you can identify potential issues before they become a problem. The chances of success increase when you engage with influencers early on and address their concerns.
4. Cultivate local champions
No matter how well you communicate the local benefits of your project, your messages will always be subject to skepticism because your company isn’t local, and it will make money from the project. Support from local citizens and leaders will resonate with the community and build trust in ways that no developer can match.
Don’t wait until you hit a roadblock to begin building up local support. Identifying champions and building a relationship with them is a process that should begin on day one. Build a database of supporters, and give them regular updates to help them feel invested in the project’s success. (There are plenty of digital tools available to streamline this process.) You can’t put a price on local support, so be respectful of your champions’ time and limit your requests.
5. Address legitimate concerns
Strategic communication can resolve many common issues and prevent unreasonable attacks against a project, but you can’t communicate your way out of every problem.
Developers that do their homework will be able to identify the issues that are likely to become sticking points for local residents and will consider ways to resolve them. If you know you’re willing to make some changes, such as adjusting the siting of one or two turbines or changing the layout of access roads, you’ll be able to quickly and voluntarily respond to community concerns while drawing the line on areas that are not negotiable.
There is no recipe for pleasing everyone in every community, but you can head off opposition and delays by dealing with the community in good faith and adjusting the project in a way that everyone can live with. Managing community relations in a deliberate and strategic way can lead to a faster development process and more successful projects.
Peter Gray is director of client services at Aileron Communications, a Chicago-based firm providing communications and marketing services to the clean energy sector. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.