Coal projects continue to be met with NIMBY [Not in My Back Yard]-type groups protesting coal companies’ efforts to start new projects. Although these projects can create plenty of jobs, they are met by opposition groups who cite environmental concerns. The coal seam Medicine Bow Project in Wyoming is estimated to create 6,000 jobs, but has been delayed over seven years since its first initial proposal. A coal power plant proposal in Dendron, Virginia also seems to be stalled as locals and opposition groups, such as the Sierra Club, continue to fight against its development. Lastly, Kinder Morgan recently abandoned a coal export terminal located on the Columbia River in Oregon due to a strong opposition grassroots effort.
Companies need to look at their strategy of building public support to counter the NIMBY effect to projects, as the outcome for a smooth entitlement of your project is at risk. U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated that in 2011 over 350 energy projects were delayed or abandoned due to public opposition—and the economic impact of these projects were estimated at about $1.1 trillion in GDP and 1.9 million jobs a year. That is a lot of missed opportunity for jobs and clean energy, all due to public opposition.
Having been in the business of running public affairs campaigns to build public support for controversial projects for nearly twenty years, I can tell you that the key piece of the puzzle missed by developers in their public outreach strategy is the “campaign” style approach the opponents seem to do so well.
Too often coal-related proposals do not offer up an aggressive public affairs campaign when they announce a project, often letting crucial time pass between the announcement of a proposal and when public outreach begins. Opponents use this time to build opposition and sway residents against these projects. By running a political style campaign, you can reach all residents, identify the supporters, and harness them into action for your project. Here are some crucial tactics that campaigns should consider in their outreach efforts:
Announce Your Proposal Wisely
When announcing a project, have a few pieces of direct mail ready to hit all the households in the host community to spread the positive benefits of the project. Follow this up with newspaper web ads, and phone banking of the community to, again, further identify supporters. Have an open house to answer residents’ questions and recruit supporters. All of this should be done in the first few weeks after announcing a project, to not allow the opposition to gel and take over the narrative. Too often companies allow precious time between announcing a project, and disseminating information to the community.
Meet With Identified Supporters
Once you have a database of supporters built from the mailers, ads and phone calls, the developer should meet with them so that they know they are not alone in their support, and they are a grassroots force that can begin to write letters to public officials, the newspapers, and attend key public hearings and speak out. Rarely will a supporter write a letter for you or attend and speak at a public hearing if you have not had the face to face contact with them previously.
Build Grasstops Support
In addition to reaching out to residents, stakeholders and well-known members of the community, along with businesses, associations, and other civic groups should also be met with to attempt to bring on board for support.
Keep an Updated Database
As you begin to identify supporters of your project, that information should be put in a database to refer to throughout the entitlement process of your proposal. Coding your supporters by local legislative districts can also help if you need to target a particular local legislator who may be wavering in support.
The key goal of these types of campaigns is to never allow the opponents an opportunity to seize the moment because of inaction by the developer. Just announcing a coal project is not enough to assume that everyone will be on board to support it. By running an aggressive campaign and identifying supporters, you have taken a key step of any successful campaign. Knowing what to do with the identified members of a community who support your project is the next step, and one that will allow vocal support to outnumber opponents—whether it be petitions, letters or crowds at public hearings. In 2013 and beyond, expect NIMBY opposition to coal-related projects. Meeting this challenge with proven grassroots techniques will be critical to making 2013 a success for the coal industry.
—Al Maiorino started Public Strategy Group, Inc. in 1995. His firm has developed and managed multiple corporate public affairs campaigns in a variety of industries such as gaming, cable television, retail development, auto racing, energy and residential projects.