This article was taken from the whitepaper “Communications & Water management: How utilities can communicate better.” You’ll find the it here.

When a biomass company failed spectacularly to garner public support for a new biomass plant in the small town of Grangemouth, Scotland, any prospective energy project coming in behind them had to avoid the same outcome: a community that felt unheard, skeptical, angry, and ultimately derailed the project after several years of costly consultations. How then, not long after the biomass project failed to come to fruition, did an energy-from-waste plant get the community’s support and approval in under a year? 

While this may not be a water-sector communications example, any organization that deals with critical infrastructure will find lessons in the approach Proteus Communications Group (PCG) took to consultations with the Grangemouth community, particularly utilities who have a big change or a controversial project coming down the pipe.

Here, I draw on our experience consulting with the community of Grangemouth on a new energy-from-waste project and outline how we refined our messaging, avoided knee-jerk reactions, and leveraged community nodes to properly consult residents so they felt genuinely heard, informed, and able to shape their own opinion about the project—without feeling sold to.

Identify common values and communicate your project’s “why”

Identify common values between your project and the community

One of the key starting points for your dialogue with a community about an upcoming change or project is to get a feel for the main issues driving the community and identify some commonalities between the project goals and community’s values. Try to pick up on any subtleties of what concerns people locally. 

In the case of Grangemouth, we formed a preliminary idea of what was important to the community by reviewing the media coverage from the biomass plant project. While the media coverage focused primarily on the issue of atmospheric pollution, we identified an emotional subtext that was confirmed later by explicitly asking for feedback about the community’s concerns. Emotions ran particularly high by the fact that a biomass company showed up without any prior connection to the community or any plan to provide economic value to the community in the form of jobs. 

In other words, it didn’t matter that Grangemouth would have the benefit of a new energy source, residents weren’t buying into the biomass project because they felt the economic value belonged to shareholders and stockholders. This kind of objection is common for small working class communities. 

Fortunately, the energy-from-waste project had a prior connection to the community and was going to provide jobs that fit the level of education and qualifications of residents. We quickly identified this was a crucial message to get across when communicating the new project proposal on the heels of one that went over so poorly.

Communicate the “why” before the details

In the early stages of dialogue with a community, it’s important to focus on communicating the project’s “why” before getting into the details. In Grangemouth, we spent at least six months sharing the “why” behind the project goals. We did this so there was a good foundational understanding of the basics within the community before moving onto a more detailed dialogue about the project. 

When you focus on communicating the project’s higher-level purpose and goals prior to getting into the details, you can avoid triggering misunderstandings and knee-jerk emotional reactions that cause resistance before residents have all the information they need to form their own balanced opinion. 

In this case, the “why” behind the project was that an already existing company and employer in the community, a chemical production facility, needed to reduce its costs by reducing its reliance on oil, so it could compete more effectively internationally. The company was looking at alternative energy sources, and the energy-from-waste plant, using local waste, was their preferred alternative. The project had the benefit of securing jobs at the chemical plant while also creating more jobs in the process.

What are “community nodes” and how do they support your communications?

What are community nodes?

Community nodes are places in a community where information tends to be passed between residents and other groups or organizations. It’s where already existing lines of communication and dialogue occur and people tend to have discussions. Community nodes generally fall into three groups: leisure, education, and healthcare. Libraries, hairdressers, barbers, post offices, public houses, and news agencies are good examples of community nodes.

How does briefing community nodes help improve public perception?

When you brief community nodes before more in-depth consultations and community outreach activities, you allow your core messages (i.e., the project’s “why” and common values) to settle into a community’s communication networks for a while. This is a key step in improving public perception because during later phases of your consultations, the informed community nodes sustain your core messages and correct misinformation as people talk more about the project in their day-to-day conversations.

Community nodes were crucial to supporting the second phase of our consultations in Grangemouth. Residents were more open and prepared for the project details in phase two because of the work we did to brief the community in phase one. It meant that instead of strong adverse reactions to the details of the project, residents came to meetings more open-minded and curious for more information and discussion. 

Even if residents didn’t like or support the project, they were already aware of its main goals, and the emotional charge you might expect from an energy-from-waste proposal wasn’t there, allowing the community and the company to have a more constructive dialogue and give beneficial feedback about the project.

How community nodes work

How community nodes work

Brief community nodes—but don’t sell your project

Inform, don’t sell.

It’s critical—fundamental—not to “sell” the project to community nodes (or at any stage of dialogue with a community), especially when the project involves controversial change.

This can be hard for companies who want their communications teams to drum up support for their cause and are eager to have the projects approved. But it’s very important not to add any spin or salesy tone to the information you share because as soon as you do, your vested interest jumps out a mile, and that immediately creates resistance within a community before they have all the information they need to form their own opinion.

Instead, provide neutral information about the project’s “why” and shared values as discussed earlier. Certainly, be transparent about and flag the company’s preferred actions, but let people ask questions and give them sources for further information instead of getting into the details.

Remember, people can dislike a project or a change and at the same time understand why it’s occurring and its value to the community.

The primary goal at this stage is to get as many people as possible to understand the project goals and its implications for them as a community in a neutral way. Your goal is to put community nodes in an informed position, so when people have discussions in these places, there are other people present who are knowledgeable about the subject.

Community nodes are not ambassadors for your project

Community nodes, and the people that form them, are not ambassadors for the project. You are not in any way inducing them to share a positive message about the project. In fact, community nodes can oppose the project completely. They can choose to share or not to share the information you give them. The goal with community nodes is not to gain ambassadors but to build an informed awareness about the project into the fabric of the community’s informal communications.

Other best practices for community-node engagement

Brief community nodes in-person

Brief community nodes with an in-person conversation and simple hardcopy briefing materials they can share with residents. For example, we invited Grangemouth’s hairdressers and barbers to a meeting complete with tea, coffee, and biscuits, and we talked to them about what we were doing and explained to them why we were talking to them. 

Barbers and hairdressers were a great group of people to brief in Grangemouth. During phase two of our consultations, people who attended community meetings would bring up the topic of the energy-from-waste plant while getting their haircut. Then, because someone within the barbers or hairdressers already knew about it, they were able to discuss it and add their own views to it.

Pub owners and pub goers are also a good community node and a nice informal way to quickly brief lots of people in a relaxed environment. But you’ve got to be careful with pubs. Catch pup-goers early because it can get a little out of hand if you go too late in the evening, and you might end up in a bit of trouble!

Give community nodes easy materials to share information

In Grangemouth, we produced two materials for community nodes to easily share information about the project. First, we created a 6-inch leaflet with key messages about the project. Second, we produced a small card, about the size of a business card, where one side of the card had the key messages, and the other side included a QR code where residents could find further information. Because of the code on the cards, we could track where in the community people were receiving the cards and actually accessing more information. Barbers and hairdressers found these cards useful, handing them out at the cash register at the end of haircuts.

Engage the broader community; don’t stop at residents adjacent to project

Remember to brief community nodes and engage with residents in a larger geographical area than the residents who are immediately adjacent to an upcoming project. Typically, residents who are outside the first handful of miles from a project will lack interest in the project, but don’t stop engaging those people. 

This is important because when you engage with and gain feedback from across an entire community, your arguments and positioning with local authorities have more credibility because you can demonstrate your wide reach. As you move further away geographically from the location of a project, some of your messaging may change, but the approach to leveraging community nodes is the same.

Hard work pays off

Near the end of phase-two consultations in Grangement, our team did a door-knocking exercise, and found the level of knowledge within the community about the project was exceptionally high. About 78% of people we spoke to were aware of our key messages, and the majority of those people didn’t actually attend any of our events but got the information from others in the community. 

In the end, Grangemouth residents felt the project made sense as it would both secure jobs and the competitive ability of the chemical factory while also creating new long-term jobs at the energy-from-waste plant. Residents, piggybacking on the engagement work we did, even developed a community council to have more regular discussions with local government.

Water utilities serving small, medium, or large communities, can glean lessons from our methods and experience with community nodes in Grangemouth. Consider how you might leverage community nodes in your service area to improve public perception and extend the reach of your utility’s messaging for regular operations or new projects.

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