Those who launch big projects or campaigns have one advantage – an early start. After that, the advantage slides over to opponents, who have become more organized, clever and dedicated.
Starting early allows project proponents to listen and adapt their project to counter, eliminate or minimize opposition claims. It also allows proponents to create the first, positive impression of a project.
One of the key rules of marketing is being first to market. That principle holds true in public affairs, as well. Telling your story first is better than trying to tell your story through a tangled opposition narrative.
Despite the obvious advantage of starting early, many proponents dilly dally, usually to perfect “their plan.” However, rolling out a “perfect plan” is often the wrong strategy because it says you have the answers, regardless of the questions.
People like to be heard, even if their comments don’t result in massive changes in already engineered plans. Many times, though, citizen questions and concerns – and even sharp barbs by opponents – can expose weaknesses or oversights in a plan. The worst kind of oversight is a small adjustment or addition that could accomplish a longstanding community goal, which would be a large selling point.
Instead of concentrating on your project plan, devote energy first to project benefits. Speaking in terms of benefits sends a different vibe than listing all the marvelous features contained in the plan. It signals the community you have considered their needs and interests. The actual plan may not be much different, but community members will have the chance to see the project through a different, bigger lens.
Engaging neighbors, community leaders and opponents takes time, so an early start is essential to carrying out an engagement process. Careful, active listening is required to hear concerns and tease out opportunities for common ground, then translate that common ground into a revised plan that neutralizes the main core of opposition.
The fear that community engagement would slow down a project is understandable, but it overlooks the delays that can occur later when angry people look for and find procedural means to waylay a project, disrupting time-sensitive schedules, frequently with protracted legal action.
The most sensitive community engagement can’t guarantee to rout all opposition or prevent barricades to project progress. But it can invest a project with goodwill, brighter ideas and, if done imaginatively, unexpected allies.
A late start on community engagement, likewise, doesn’t guarantee failure or rancor. However, it usually sets up a win-lose scenario, rather than a win-win possibility.