The following column is the seventh in a series discussing how organizations can harness the power of the public.
Businesses now operate in an environment where public support is often the difference between success and failure. This is particularly true in those sectors, such as transportation and energy, that depend on large-scale infrastructure projects. Without public support, those projects don’t go ahead. When those projects don’t go ahead, the industry suffers.
Complicating matters further, there is no absolute test for when a project achieves the public support needed to go ahead. Depending on the nature of the project there may be a series of legal or regulatory hurdles, but a clear threshold for public support rarely, if ever, exists. Nowhere will it say that a project goes ahead if, for example, polls show 80 per cent of people support it.
All this begs the question, how much public support is enough? While the answer depends on multiple factors, I believe there are certain core principles most companies can rely upon to improve their chances. First and this is key, it is virtually impossible to get 100 per cent public support behind any project. You will rarely convince all the people all the time.
This leads to the second principle: Not all public opinions are created equal. For example, in the case of a major transportation infrastructure project, the views of those directly impacted by the construction of the project should be given greater weight than the opinions of those who are further removed. Knowing this helps proponents focus their efforts.
Using a transportation example, let’s say that a railway company wants to build a new set of tracks leading from their main terminal. Before they move ahead with their plans, they’d be wise to engage with and secure the support of those who live or work along the proposed route. Their views and input should be given added attention over those who live on the other side of town.
A third principle: It pays to understand why people oppose your project. Most decision-makers, either elected officials or public-sector regulators, will distinguish between those who oppose a specific project on its merits and those who would oppose any project on principle. Opponents who can point to specific and technical shortcomings about a plan should be engaged not ignored.
This is not to suggest that people who have principled objections to your project can be dismissed, but their opposition is different. There may be nothing you can do or say to convince them to support your project because they are philosophically against any project of its kind (see principle number one), but their views should be considered in that context.
My fourth and final principle: There is a huge difference between active and passive public opinion. You could have 80 per cent approval for a project, but if supporters remain silent on the sidelines you can still lose. An extremely vocal 20 per cent opposed to a project can give the impression of significant opposition when, in reality, they are a much smaller group.
Rob Mariani is a senior vice-president with Hill+Knowlton Strategies and serves as general manager of their Ottawa offices.