Social media is changing the role of public participation (PP) in the planning, permitting, and licensing process (PPL) for every energy project in the U.S. From the Keystone XL pipeline project to Cape Wind, social media is organizing opposition faster and elevating the community engagement part of the process to a new, unprecedented level. Energy companies need to embrace the newfound significance of PP in the PPL process and actively work to coordinate the two parts in a seamless strategy or run the risk of having projects falter before a shovel hits the ground.
To effectively join PP and PPL in the digital age, companies must create a robust plan that incorporates the project approval strategy with a social media presence and proactive community engagement. Doing so before announcing a project or applying for a permit can help gauge the temperature of a community both online and off, identify key players, and anticipate where opposition will originate. The process will help you control the conversation, diminish opposition, and save time and money in the approval process.
Here are some simple, but critical, steps energy companies should take to develop an integrated PP and PPL plan.
Understand the Host Community and Coordinate Your Team
Research and identify the stakeholders and critical issues important to the host community. This must be coordinated with the project’s PPL process so that the messaging and strategy are seamless. Embed yourself in the community and learn about it. Conduct a media audit of all relevant sources, both traditional and social. Learn how to talk to residents on their terms, and ask questions such as:
■ Who are the city/town/county/state government officials who will be interested in this project?
■ Who are the local leaders that act as the community’s moral compass?
■ What are the social or economic issues facing the community?
■ What are the needs of the community? (New school, bike trail, new park?)
■ Has a project like yours been undertaken before in the community, and to what result?
■ What are the traditional/social media outlets that inform the community, and what are they saying about energy projects in the community/state/nation?
Create a Plan
Building on your community research, formulate a messaging platform that is reflected across all project communications, and include the following.
Website/Social Media Presence. Your company should create a website and Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts that are dedicated specifically to the project. Update them regularly to share information about the project. Monitor social media continuously for chatter about your project to anticipate opposition, questions, and concerns. Answer any and all questions. Be responsive, provide information, and remain calm.
Public Engagement Plan. Offer an “open house” to meet with residents about the project. Meet with all elected officials and community leaders, and have one, consistent message. Listen to their needs and respond to them in your project communications.
Community Benefits Package. Most communities are struggling with budgetary restrictions these days. Find things the community needs (a park, playground, or bike trail) or that it wants to clean up (brownfield site) and incorporate that into a benefits package offered as part of the permitting process. It will show you are dedicated to the community and will provide incentive for approval.
Execute a Combined PP and PPL Campaign
In the age of social media, the regulatory and approval process for energy projects needs to be run much like a political campaign. Taking a “this is the way it is going to be” attitude will lead to bad publicity, delays, cost overruns, and possibly loss of the project entirely. Proper execution of your public engagement strategy is critical. A well-run campaign will:
■ Actively listen to the community and its concerns.
■ Be open and transparent with information about the project—especially on social media.
■ Incorporate the ideas of the community into the plan, if warranted.
■ Educate and train project experts so they can deliver positive messages in response to community concerns and opposition. Identify a team of spokespeople who engage with community groups, social institutions, local environmental groups, and the local cable access channels.
■ Establish and maintain a social media listening project to monitor the various platforms to ensure messaging is consistent, questions are answered, and tabs are kept on the opposition’s messaging.
■ Amplify positive media coverage and use targeted advertising online to promote the project.
■ Utilize key stakeholders and cultivate them as third-party validators for your project. Having recognized leaders as supporters is vitally important. Promote their support to your targeted audiences.
As the world changes, the business of energy needs to change. Managing the conversation is key in any project approval process today. PP and PPL must be accounted for as part of one comprehensive approach. While no plan is foolproof, success is greatly improved by dedicating the right resources to anticipating and finding alternatives to public stakeholder concerns. Education and transparency are of the utmost importance when dealing with sensitivities likely to be amplified by social media. ■
—Mary Usovicz is a vice president at TRC, a national engineering services, consulting, and construction management firm. She has over 30 years of experience dealing with public participation at organizations including the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Tennessee Gas Pipeline, and Repsol.