Our Insights

Lessons Learned on the Front Line of Public Engagement

August 16, 2019

Elizabeth Swain of POWER EngineersBy Elizabeth Swain
Strategic Communications Department Manager and Senior Project Manager

This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.

If you have ever sited an infrastructure project of any kind, you have stories to tell. Stories are the frame we put around our experiences—both good and bad. They help us capture lessons, keep our sense of humor and recover from the stress of getting projects delivered on time and on budget.

I’d like to share a few of my stories in the form of lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime of working on complex controversial issues, mostly involving energy infrastructure.

Project Planning

A U.S. Senator once told me at the outset of his first campaign that the most consequential decisions he would make would be at the very beginning of the race. He was right. I’ve always remembered that because it applies to infrastructure projects as well.

Ask yourself, is this the right time for my company to be moving forward with a visible and potentially challenging project? Have we laid the reputational groundwork? Are our relationships with decision-makers in good shape? Do I have the right team to bring this to a successful conclusion? Big projects can take a major toll on a company if all the elements for success are not in place.

Get the site right. That is what we hear from non-governmental organizations, with an implicit offer of support for correctly sited projects. I’m still waiting to see that support, but the advice is spot on.

In addition to the environmental and engineering issues that factor into a routing and siting analysis, understanding the affected communities is critical. Land-based aquaculture applications present a case in point. One project selected a former paper company town and is moving forward easily. The other one in a coastal community with strong preservationist values is having a harder time. Upfront research could have saved the latter company time and money. Those first decisions are indeed the most consequential.

Be clear-eyed about project impacts. It’s easy to underestimate how the public will react to real or perceived impacts. Project sponsors understand the benefits of expanding electric infrastructure. However, since the benefits side of the ledger is more opaque to the public, they generally perceive the impacts as disproportionate to the benefits.

Mitigation is key. I have learned the hard way that mitigation is best presented up front, rather than held for later negotiations. Unmitigated impacts to resources of public concern can be a potent organizing tool for project opponents.

Project Development

Develop friends before you need them. Grassroots and grasstop allies are essential for publicly visible projects, and these relationships take time to cultivate. Friends offer critical support at community meetings, regulatory proceedings, online and in the press. Credible third-party champions are an effective counterweight to misinformation from project opponents.

Communicate early and often. Seek every opportunity to spread factual information about your project, don’t just rely on one open house. Especially if opposition is forming, you must have a presence on social media, online forums, websites and in person. Talk to service clubs, city chambers, community groups, retirees and anyone who will listen. Keep local officials well-informed and check in regularly to offer them updates and keep track of the pulse in town.

Diffusing Controversy

If you find yourself at loggerheads with a community, there are strategies to engage the public that result in mutually acceptable outcomes. Correctly implemented, a community advisory process gives interested parties a seat at the table and enables a rational dialogue about public values, project purpose and siting considerations. Don’t despair. There is always a path forward.

And remember, controversial projects do get permitted. The goal is to be as smart and strategic as possible to save time, money and reputations. When your project is completed, wouldn’t you rather be telling a short story with a happy ending?

About the Author:

Elizabeth specializes in environmental permitting and communications. She has extensive experience in managing complex public policy issues for an array of projects. Her experience has focused on permitting energy projects and providing strategic consultation and community relations for a variety of land use and environmental projects. She also regularly assists clients with government and media relations. Got a question for Elizabeth? Send her an email at elizabeth.swain@powereng.com