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Your Opposition Is Ahead of You

Why You Need a Comprehensive Communications Strategy

Lately I’ve been reading about an increasing number of instances in which good-faith planning efforts are being ambushed, often delaying or completely derailing various initiatives. Here, for example, are the new commissioners of Carroll County, Maryland, working to “fix” their comprehensive plan – click on item VI in the agenda under the video or jump to about 1:07 to get to the heart of it. More informatively, here’s the East Bay Tea Party in California revealing the strategy it used to derail a public visioning workshop focused on sustainable development.

These are not isolated incidents; they are the new reality. And in the face of that, the planners’ current community-engagement playbook has become completely irrelevant. As Clay Shirky points out in his book Here Comes Everybody, the cost of banding together for collective action has dropped to close to zero, meaning any latent group can organize long enough to derail an initiative and then dissolve, with little or no effort. And anger motivates a lot of this organizing.

Planning departments don’t normally expend a lot of resources devising a comprehensive outreach strategy – what they’ve always done is what they’re likely to continue to do – but developing such a plan has become a necessity. As a group we’re not particularly adept at developing communications strategies, so here are some recommendations from some people who have been there:


Put someone in charge of this. You probably don’t have internal resources for a dedicated communications strategist, so try to capitalize on resources elsewhere in your local government. Somehow you need to make effective communications and outreach a priority, not an afterthought.

Build the case: Why does your initiative matter? What is the free-market economic case for it? What unmet need does it satisfy? What are the benefits and to whom? Develop a comprehensive frequently-asked-questions-type document to answer these questions, and use it as your template for all communications outreach.

List potential objections, then enumerate all the counter-arguments: Identify every reason it wouldn’t be possible to execute your initiative, then draw up a list of all the valid arguments that could be used to counter each objection. This will help you develop your early messages and will provide ready answers when you’re challenged by an objector, or by the media.

Identify key stakeholders at all levels, and figure out how to reach every group and individual you need to.  Set up individual meetings with key audiences and stakeholders and anyone who would be affected by the initiative. How do they think? What are their relationships? Who do they listen to? What are their concerns or questions? Are they likely to be advocates, opposition or silent? How can you reach them best and continue the conversation with them? Craft different sub-messages highlighting different benefits for different stakeholder groups.

During the planning process

Communicate, communicate, communicate:

  • Plan and anticipate actions, messages, opportunities, etc. Monitor public input and response to make sure each stakeholder group is being engaged and heard from and valid issues are being addressed.
  • Engage: Provide plenty of opportunities for the community to weigh in. Hold public community input sessions at least monthly and provide quick feedback to the public. Give talks and presentations to any group that wants one, presenting consistent, clear messages.
  • Repeat:  This is a conversation, not a one-time event. Communicate, listen and respond. Take feedback and put it back into the process so people know you’re listening.

Work proactively with local media: Concentrate on educating local print media because that, not local television, is what reaches the influencers. Make the local newspaper a true partner if you can. Meet early and often with any newspaper editor or staff and with key local bloggers and listserve participants who will be touching coverage about the initiative to be sure they understand all the nuances. Work with the local business journal to explain the initiative and win support from business community.

Remember elected officials: Make sure they have up-to-date information when they talk with constituents, and find a political champion if you can.

Gather success stories and use them to help make your case.

Opposition to an initiative will always be there, but devoting the necessary resources to strategic communications planning will maximize your chances of overcoming it and minimize the chances it will surprise you. It’s time to include this as a line item in your budget, because, as the former planning director from Carroll County pointed out, budgeting it is nowhere near as expensive as spending a lot of time and effort on an initiative only to have it fail because communications wasn’t on the list of things you strategized.

This article was adapted from a session at the 2011 American Planning Association national conference. My thanks to the panelists for sharing their wisdom, condensed too much for this post.


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