Overcoming project opposition: getting your ducks in line
I was inspired to write on this topic after reading the article “NGOs, do they sometimes cross the line, and what can you do about it?” http://goo.gl/Z4qvgh authored by my friend Toby Webb. The premise is; your company is under attack; a campaign has happened that is costing you millions of dollars; and you’re convinced you’re in the right. Webb goes on to state that it’s never a good idea to sue the NGO despite the fact that they may be damaging companies who provide value and jobs to society.
I largely agree with this. NGOs as any other entity or individual in society need to be accountable for what they say and do. However in the information age we live in, perception is reality. Uninformed spectators usually perceive NGOs as altruistic defenders once an issue goes public. Suing them, regardless of the outcome appears as “bully tactics” often galvanizing more supporters to their cause, be they media, politicians, activists or hackers. In the case of new land-based project development like a mine, dam, road, or pipeline, the consequence to the targeted company is not only diminished sales, but also a severe threat to its entire project or asset.
Motivated opposition by a few families under NGO influence, strategically situated on project land can stop a project, even if the wider local community is in favour. Likewise with small groups of activists disrupting a road or pipeline. The best first strategy is concerted engagement efforts where a company is able to transparently demonstrate its actions to stakeholders and prove its case over time, making reasonable adjustments to its plans in order to address concerns. In such a way opposition can sometimes be placated enough so that its resistance drops to an extent where the project can move forward.
Sometimes ideology trumps reason or there are other interests at play. If an unreasonable NGO or opposition group has gone rampant with false claims, you will not always be able to win them over despite your best efforts. Projects become political, and when they do other key stakeholders have an especially critical role in determining success (governments, regulatory bodies, media, community groups and other organizations). Their support or at least neutrality is achievable in theory, but often a very daunting task in practice. There are a number of questions you should ask yourself: Is government aligned with business interests enough to expend political capital on you? How about the media? Can you provide enough benefits in a timely matter to enough people in order to make them want to accept the perceived risks to their livelihood or environment from your business? Do you have the time, resources, and ability to build bridges with these groups if they are negatively predisposed or skeptical about your activity?
More effective and much less risky than legally proving a case in court, is getting an independent respected institution to tell your truth about a project or product and its true probable impact/benefits. Often that’s not just government but a respected university, institute, or other organization. Even if not convincing to your opponents, that will at least provide evidence and political cover for your proponents, or authorities who need to act. Ultimately, it comes down to both who has the trust and legitimacy, and who has the authority and the power.
There is no silver bullet. Some projects will fail, and are not all will reach the public sustainability threshold (social and political license) to move forward. Most can if companies smartly invest the strategic resources necessary to engage and accommodate their key stakeholders. Building trust takes staff time, logistics, and sometimes making costly material adjustments to project design or processes. You’ll never win everybody over but you do need to have enough of your ducks in line.