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When Your Project Requires Public Input, You Need a Communications Plan
October 14, 2019
When Your Project Requires Public Input, You Need a Communications Plan
Zhana Veleska

Most companies and organizations don’t think much about the impact their presence has on a community. They get the necessary permits, rent their space, set up shop, and away they go.

But sometimes there is another step — and an important one. When a business or group could change a town and affect the public’s experience of that community, it can cause discomfort among those who value consistency. People expect the same neighborhood sights and sounds, the same downtown, and the same schools as much as possible.

And that’s why a communications plan is essential for any project that might affect the public.

When change is proposed, people who don’t know anything about city government and or follow local issues — as well as the people who do — will spring into action and become regulars at government meetings discussing these projects. Some examples: a new warehouse is planned for a field that abuts a residential neighborhood. An emergency clinic — complete with several ambulance visits a day — moves into an empty building down the street. A cannabis dispensary is proposed for a suburb’s downtown.

Soon after news of a “controversial” project gets around, social media groups could pop up and organize opposition, followed by yard signs, flyers, rallies, and public hearings. And — because conflict is good copy — the burgeoning conflict could become a series of media stories, breaking it wide open and further hardening positions.

A communications plan can provide invaluable perspective and strategy to help businesses and organizations get their side of the story out to the public to help prevent major opposition or at least offset its influence.

Let’s say, for example, you’re planning what some might say is a controversial (though 100 percent legal) business — a cannabis dispensary.

You might not be concerned because the town “opted in” for the right to sell cannabis. You also know you’re not violating zoning laws because it’s not close to a church or school. So, it should be easy, right?

Hold on. You need to, as we say at our agency, “wear the hat.” What would YOU think if this business was locating a block away from your home AND you really don’t know what a dispensary looks like? Or it’s planning to locate on one end of Main Street — a lovely suburban shopping area? What kind of customers frequent that business? How big a footprint will it have? Will there be police cruising by all the time?

That’s why you need to plan in advance about how your major announcement will be communicated to the people most affected by it.

For example, if you’re a prospective dispensary, how could you educate the public about what it’s really going to look like?

You could:

  • Provide renderings or photos of what your business will look like, inside and out. Make it relatable — “it looks like a very nice jewelry store with displays and glass cases,” or “ like the retail part of a high-end spa,” and so on
  • Mention you developed a 50-page 24/7 security plan with the state
  • Reinforce that no one can consume on site or nearby
  • Provide a tour if you have another location nearby

A communications plan gives you a better chance to control the narrative around the project and get your key messages in front of the audiences that matter most.

Here are some steps for creating a communications plan:

  • Start right away. It’s never too early to at least figure out who your audiences are, what your messages might need to be and plan good/bad scenarios.
  • Research. This is when you build the backbone of the plan, finalize who primary audiences are — including what their concerns are and what they do/don’t want to hear — set up a potential timeline and figure out what potential obstacles might be.
  • Line up your supporters. This is critical. Do you have village/city officials who support your project/plan? Are some residents and businesses in the affected area OK with your project? Make sure you find them and keep them on your side.
  • Create the actual plan. Bring your key audiences, messages, tactics, platforms and timeline together. Do you need a landing page on your website to address community Q and As? Printed materials? Public hearing preparation? This is the guide for the weeks/months to come, but it’s subject to change as new inputs come in.
  • Road test. Find out — in one-on-one and other meetings — what messages resonate (or not). See if you have more supporters than you first thought (or not). Make sure everyone takes copious notes of their interactions from these meetings and reports back to update the plan and strategy.
  • Work the plan. This may occur sooner than you’d like if, for example, a story about your project appears in the newspaper before you anticipate it. But that’s OK, because you’re prepared. Right?

A communications plan can’t solve all your potential problems; sometimes the time isn’t right for change in a particular town or neighborhood, although communications outreach can provide an early warning of trouble.

A plan provided by expert communications counsel is vital to help you understand the concerns of residents, businesses/organizations and public officials most affected by the project, and also to develop a game plan to address their concerns as much as possible.

Because in times of change, communication and transparency are more important than ever.

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