Listen Up

An expansion or construction project’s success depends on a waste firm’s ability to communicate with and accommodate the surrounding community.

May 28, 2008

5 Min Read
Listen Up

Kenneth Bleyer and Will Flower

Dr. Joyce brothers once wrote, “Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery. If you want to influence someone, listen to what he says … When he finishes talking, ask him about points that you do not understand. Tell him what it is you want, and point out areas where you are in agreement and those where you do not agree. He will be flattered that you have listened intently, that you take him seriously and that you truly understand his position.”

As one would expect, news that a fi rm is planning to expand a landfill or is proposing to construct a waste-to-energy plant is not often welcomed by the surrounding community. In many cases, development projects are quickly met with vocal opponents displaying signs and banners to show their discontent.

Opposition can become so overwhelming that the worthiness of the project takes a backseat to managing the controversy erupting around it. Unsurprisingly, obtaining community permission for pollution control facilities is increasingly diffi cult. That said, the right kind of planning can ease the process for everyone. Also, listening to the public should be a big part of any firm’s plan.

The Right to Know

Meeting with the public to provide information about a proposed greenfield or brownfi eld project often is more difficult and time-consuming than securing approvals from the actual decision- makers. Before taking a land-use case to the public, identify local sensibilities, public preferences, historical practices and community customs.

It is crucial that developers engage the public as early as possible, and allow neighbors, community leaders, concerned citizens and other audiences to gather information and become educated about the project.

A developer or manager of a pollution control facility must be able to create forums where the public can receive information and ask questions. The early stages of a community outreach effort present critical opportunities for these kinds of discussions.

The success of the discussions is dependent largely upon a firm’s willingness to carefully listen to the public's concerns so that the community knows it has been heard. The public has a legitimate right to know what is going on in or around their community. Projects that are shrouded in secrecy fail to build trust and add to the public’s cynicism about the waste industry.

Talk It Out

The waste industry must reframe its thinking about communicating with the public. Viewing a situation as “applicant vs. opposition” ignores the fact that “the opposition” is comprised of a variety of people. Clumping people with divergent interests and concerns into one monolithic group known pejoratively as “the opposition” does not add to the conversation. It undermines it.

Talking it out begins with recognizing that those affected by the project are stakeholders who want to be consulted. They are not always troublemakers seeking to derail a project.

Project developers and community stakeholders should promote sustainable decisions by recognizing and effectively communicating their needs and interests. Early on, all issues are open for discussion, including how the groups will communicate throughout the decision-making process. Establish guidelines to ensure that all parties get the information that they need to participate in a meaningful way.

Creating trust is the key to gaining community support for a project. Without trust, meaningful relationships cannot emerge. Earning trust requires honesty, transparency and fairness. If a waste firm skips the hard work associated with building community trust, it is unlikely to achieve anything more than short-term successes shrouded in controversy and community disappointment.

Civic Engagement Plan

Moving a project through the application and approval processes successfully requires more than meeting the minimum legal and statutor y requirements. A civic engagement plan can help firms identify issues, concerns and action steps to support public outreach efforts that will keep a project team focused even if some members of the community use concerted pressure campaigns against its project.

A civic engagement plan is a blueprint that addresses contingencies that can be expected to arise as community outreach efforts are initiated and the decision-making process gets underway. The plan should capture the theme of the project and the central message to be delivered to the public.

In addition, it should also provide a timeline for taking appropriate action steps and assign responsibilit y to assorted team members to carry out these steps within the alloted time.

The purpose of the plan is to create an atmosphere that fosters mutual understandings between interested parties and allow for some measure of community involvement in the process in addition to the right to comment at a public hearing. The plans also must account for the complex nature of the proposal to minimize misunderstandings about what the project will include.

Guidance from a Founding Father

Is this a new approach to dealing with the public? Hardly.

Thomas Jefferson promoted public education and involvement more than 200 years ago in his first inaugural address. President Jefferson, an ardent advocate of public education, believed that the ability of people to govern themselves was a major goal of education. As Jefferson is often quoted, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted w it h t heir ow n government ; t hat whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

The waste industry would do well to heed Jefferson’s advice in its own work by taking steps to ensure that the communities we serve are informed and involved. The risks of not doing so are all too familiar to our industry.

Kenneth Bleyer is a principal with Civic Practice Group, a fi rm that helps teams in the waste industry develop strategies to avoid opposition and get their projects approved. Will Flower is the vice president of corporate communications for Republic Services Inc., and he frequently works with on-site project teams.

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