Convincing the Neighbors — Tools for Effective Communication about Potentially Controversial Development Projects
Development projects can be controversial for a variety of reasons: where they are proposed to be located; the proposed use; the perceived potential impact of the project on nearby residents; and simple destruct of change, unfamiliar individuals or government.
How information about a project is communicated can heavily impact the amount of controversy a proposal creates. In this day and age, developers must consider both media outlet and content, and recognize that as a result of social media, no guarantee that messaging by concerned parties will be favorable or even accurate. At the same time, developers must be concerned with maintaining a truthful image of their intentions, especially noting their commitments being made publicly could have the potential to impact development approvals. For large projects, employing professionals who specialize in public relations and communications may be advisable.
For smaller projects without the budget for public relations consultants, here are a few suggestions (practical and legal).
- Early on, try to identify potential stakeholders. Reach out early so you know what level of opposition is likely and what public concerns are.
- Recognize that almost without exception, everyone uses social media. However, you choose to deliver your message, ultimately it (or someone else’s version of it) will be posted, tweeted or commented on. If the post is to your social media page or webpage, you can manage (somewhat) public commentary by deletion or response to negative comments. If the posts are on someone else’s feed, you may not even know about them. Regularly search your name, the projects name and other stakeholders’ names or organizations to stay aware of public commentary about your project.
- Never respond to negative posts while angry or frustrated. Write or type out your response as a separate document; put it down; calm down; edit it later without emotion; and then post.
- If you use images created by your consultants on your website or in social media posts, get their consent to the use, in writing.
- If there are pre-identified stakeholder groups, try to develop lines of communication with them. In some cases, that means in person meetings, in other situations, it means developing email list serves or other avenues for online submittal of questions.
- Prepare FAQ sheets and make them available via a member only website. Stakeholders can request access and you develop a list of contact information and a record of interaction. It is usually a positive factor in the eyes of the political decision makers that you are in dialogue with stakeholders.
- Never use someone’s work product or name without permission. Do not respond to personal attacks, or make any – even if the other party is engaging in character assassination. Remember, the only people who benefit from defamation lawsuits are lawyers, and your money is better spent on consultants and attorneys obtaining development approvals on your behalf.
- Develop mailing lists by asking those who post or comment about your proposal to log in or register to receive updates or additional project information. If the project approval process goes well, these people may be the first names on your marketing distribution list.
- Resist the temptation to rely solely on the opinions of self-appointed (or even officially designated) representatives of stakeholders. In today’s communication heavy world, one person’s opinion is usually just one person’s opinion. Everyone else will talk, blog, tweet or post their opinions even if there is a spokesperson. This avoids surprises at public hearings when individuals show up and their opinions differ from the “official” position voiced by the spokesperson.
- Finally, focus on consistent messages, honesty (even if that means taking an unpopular position or acknowledging a lack of knowledge about an issue), and following through on promises to deliver additional information are key to avoiding conflict with concerned neighbors.
Trust is built over time, and effective communication requires trust. Be patient and try to listen objectively. It will usually pay off in the end. If you require assistance in responding effectively to opposition, our lawyers are experienced in working with developers to gain approvals of controversial development projects throughout Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Leigh Kellett Fletcher has been practicing land use, environmental and real estate law since 1997 and regularly represents clients acquiring, developing and selling real estate in Florida and the U. S. Virgin Islands. She has been involved in the purchase, sale and redevelopment of multi-family residential projects, office, commercial and mixed use properties and has worked with clients to obtain land use entitlements and environmental permits to develop and expand commercial development.