Public affairs key to biomass project success

By Anna Austin | May 31, 2010
Posted July 21, 2010, at 4:19 p.m. CST

Will your project be embraced by all if it's green? The answer depends, but is largely influenced by the lengths developers go to implement an aggressive and smart public affairs strategy, according to Brad Moore, senior consultant for Barr Engineering Co. in Minneapolis. "Public affairs are the key to a project's success," he told attendees of the Energy & Environmental Research Center's Biomass '10: Renewable Power, Fuels, and Chemicals Workshop held July 20-21 in Grand Forks, N.D.

The ability to understand, analyze and engage stakeholders can be just as important as good technical and engineering work, Moore said, defining stakeholders as anyone who is affected by, or thinks they maybe be affected by, a project. "Identify these stakeholders right away," added Mike Zipko, public relations strategist for St. Paul-based Goff & Howard. "Figure out who they are and how to strategically engage with them, and reach out in a way that matters."

Zipko said in the initial stages of development, before a project is introduced to the public, it's imperative to make sure factual information is readily available to the public. "In the absence of that information, people will put their own ideas in there-whether it is real or not real," he said. "What are the real risks and benefits of the project? Get that out right away … facts that you can't miss on once. Where you don't have the facts and you're not certain, be honest, but be able to say that you will get the answer. When you have it, go back out to the community and tell them what you found. Speculation is something you don't want."

Next, a developer must contact stakeholders to figure out who may be for or against the project and why. "They already exist," Zipko said. "Your challenge is to figure out how to identify them, measure and quantify them, and incorporate them into the plan." Typically these stakeholders are trade associations, advocacy groups, media, business groups, competitors, vendors and more. "Understand who they all are and figure them into the equation," he added.

This includes finding out each person and group's perspective and figuring out their specific needs, Moore added. "Listen to where they're coming from and work with key messages; segregate each one," he said. "In terms of prioritizing, determine which ones will give you the best opportunity to move forward. You need to demonstrate you're listening. Incorporate that into the project and show the community, the press and others that this is what they said, this is how we're responding."

Holding public meetings to address concerns will help reduce any friction or tension in a community, Zipko added. "Projects involve change, change creates friction and tension, and if you don't create ways to relieve it, that energy could come out in a negative way.

Being consistent throughout the project is equally important, according to Moore. "Once you have a plan, there must be some discipline in how it's enacted-do what you say you will do," he added. "Establish timelines and meet your deadlines."

Moore reminded attendees to make sure permit applications are complete when submitting them. "One of the biggest beefs of regulators is that they often get applications in that are missing a whole section," he said. "Check in with those regulators often."

Moore and Zipko recommended forming a coalition of individuals or groups who are in favor of the project to garner maximum support. "It's very easy to be opposed to a project, so use the same kind of concept to your advantage," Moore said. "Find out who benefits whether it's through lower prices, jobs, revenue for the city, and share that information with them; help them understand that they need to get involved and help make this thing happen.

Coalitions really become an asset in events that require public comment periods, Moore said. "If you don't organize a group for it, the people who organize against it have an advantage, and it may be just for the reason that they don't want change."

Finally, learning who has jurisdiction over a project site early can benefit a project. "Whether it's the state, county, federal agency or tribal government, get in contact with them as soon as possible," Zipko said. "If you have a project they might need to make a decision on, identify their concerns and figure out a method of frequent communication. Develop good relationships with regulatory and elected officials since they are very influential on what happens to your project. You can't always guarantee what's going to happen, but by not engaging [early on], you stack the results against you. Plan for the worst, but hope for the best."