If you’re building a refinery, no one is ever going to cheer that you’re moving in next door. If you’re about to construct a transmission line, the neighbors are going to complain. There are some businesses or projects that come with a ready-made, expected group of opponents. Pipelines, manufacturing facilities, multifamily projects and so on.
If you’re in the business of developing things, you should expect that you’re going to make some folks unhappy. You shouldn’t ignore them, but you shouldn’t be constantly asking permission from them either. A clear communication strategy is key, especially if you need to tell them something they may not want to hear.
We have seen many examples of effective and ineffective communications tactics so we put together the top do’s and don’ts for companies looking to design, develop and build in Texas.
6 Most Effective Practices for Development Communications
Here are some of the more reliable components that make up a comprehensive communications strategy. They don’t guarantee your project will get fast-tracked or even that your opponents will turn to supporters, but they will help you make steadier progress in the face of resistance and create an open line of communication with all stakeholders, for and against..
1. Do your homework.
That means conducting a detailed vulnerability assessment to understand how your opponents may seek to discredit your project. A vulnerability assessment is a proven method of conducting opposition research on yourself. It can find the smallest crack somebody could use to drive a wedge through. It’s the first step in a strategic communications plan: identify your own weaknesses to uncover how opponents and critics will attempt to delay your project.
2. Communicate clearly.
You don’t need to release everything about your project, but what you say about it should be clear, direct and easy to understand. There will be some details that some will not like, but their reaction can often be tempered with thoughtful framing and context. Be as transparent as possible while building a narrative that tells the story you want to tell.
3. Preview your plans.
No one likes to be surprised, so don’t spring your plans on key stakeholders. Give elected officials and community leaders a glimpse of what’s in store. A peek behind the scenes lets them know that you appreciate their position and recognize the potential of unhappy constituents approaching them. It also indicates your willingness to accept feedback and compromises that can benefit both sides.
A preview is also your first chance to take the temperature of the opposition and get a feel for how intense it might be. If you know they’re going to find out about what you’re planning, better they hear it from you first.
4. Do what you say you’re going to do.
This shouldn’t need to be said but we want to say it anyway: follow through. Be a good-faith partner. Keep your word. Be an honest broker. The opposition may not be thrilled with the outcome, but doubts let them question your integrity. With so much riding on your project’s outcome, you really can’t put a price tag on good will.
5. Listen to and acknowledge concerns.
Just knowing that their concerns are being heard can go a long way. It doesn’t mean you agree with their position, but you can at least take the time to understand it. Note their objections and consider their requests. You may not be able to accommodate all (or any) of their requests, but candid explanations are better than no communication at all.
6. Be consistent.
Stick to the script. Whatever you say about your project needs to remain consistent. Don’t tell the angry neighborhood association one thing and a broader audience another. That’s the easiest way to blow your credibility.
4 Mistakes to Avoid for Your Development Communications Plans
As important as knowing what to do when pursuing a project in Texas, you need to know the pitfalls.
1. Don’t apologize for being a business.
You can’t be bashful about what you do and you can’t sugarcoat it either. Financial considerations are real. Operational requirements keep you on schedule. Don’t shy away from what you do, where you do it, or how you do it if you’re doing it the right way. Some businesses are just loud and messy and still offer great benefits upon completion.
2. Don’t let the fear of backlash paralyze you.
Texas is great for business, but Texans can be a tough crowd. They have strong opinions and they’re not afraid to voice them. That said, don’t be intimidated into either, a) not pursuing your project, or b) not having a robust communications plan. If you’re going to take this on, you need to be proactive in setting the tone.
3. Don’t give a vocal minority more leverage than necessary.
If you are distracted by the little-but-loud crowd of opposition, you risk losing sight of the big picture. You have invested countless hours and dollars into this effort. Don’t let it be derailed because your attention was diverted by a tiny, but loud, group of detractors. Listen and respond to legitimate concerns and criticisms, but keep your eyes on the prize.
Remember that your messaging must be designed to resonate with an audience far broader than the guy next door, no matter how loud or mad he may be. The more you try to appease a small pocket of resistance, the more you amplify their grievances and distract from your own pursuits. We frequently say however you respond to your critics will carry over to the next project. If you go above and beyond in accommodating them, you are setting a precedent and expectations for future projects.
4. Don’t let the opposition set the terms of engagement.
When you’re engaged in a battle of winning hearts and minds, you need to dictate the rules. If you allow your opponent to stake out the battlefield or drive the narrative, you’re already playing with one hand tied behind your back. Think about how often you see environmental activist groups protesting developments. Why? Because that’s their job. Just be ready to do yours by getting out front and establishing the boundaries of the conflict.
Your opponents are operating from emotion, often scrambling to construct a case against you that is light on actual facts and heavy on rhetoric. It is critical that you deal from a position of absolute authority when it comes to information. If you are not the most reliable and responsive resource for information, whether requested by a city council or the media, you’ll be giving your opponents an opportunity to distort the picture and fill the gaps with inaccuracies.
All Development Makes Noise. Stay Focused and Rise Above It.
Your success is dependent on the completion of your project, regardless of the shape and size. It may have public support, it may not. Don’t ignore public opinion. Know your project inside and out, understand your opposition, and develop a plan for interacting with them.
This list is by no means exhaustive but it’s a good start when it comes to how to conduct your communications plans on a new Texas project. If you’d like to learn more about how The Monument Group advises companies on developments, let’s talk.