Nothing threatens a project’s chances for approval more than negative publicity. A typical negative news story has a headline that includes “Neighbors Mobilize to Oppose Developer or _____ Development” with the leader of the opposition quoted in the top third of the story, while the developer is quoted at the bottom third.
In the middle, the mayor or public official is put on the spot, being asked, on how they’re going to vote? They either speak against the project or they call for town hall meetings, delays, or expensive concessions that make the project financially unviable.
Such news stories are boilerplate, empowering the opposition, antagonizing public officials, and putting developers on the defensive. Yet, it’s not entirely the reporter’s fault for the negative publicity. Seriously, how can it be the reporter’s fault when they hear first from the opposition with their effective pitching and uncontested framing, while hearing crickets from the applicant?
I’ve learned a long time ago that reporters are sketch artists and not painters. They live by the deadline on a daily basis, so they don’t have the luxury of fully appreciating the reputation of your company, nor the facts supporting your project. That’s more work than they care to do and/or have the time to invest. Therefore, you must do the work for them to ensure the best coverage that you can get.
Typically, the opposition contacts a reporter demonizing the project with unsubstantiated allegations, the reporter falls into the pattern of negative reporting. It’s predictable. This is exacerbated by the fact that developers, when called, become reactive and defensive, offering little to any effective communications to mitigate the anti-development narratives.
Too many developers have been burned by prior news stories, so they’re hesitant to be proactive: “Why attract attention when there might not be any opposition out there?” is the fear. I don’t totally disagree with that sentiment, but there are some measures you should take to minimize NIMBY media attacks in the future.
1. Identify the reporters who have written past articles attacking development, so you have his/her profile on file for reference. Understanding their writing style and temperament in the articles will give you helpful intangibles when working with them under pressure.
2. Invest the time and energy for message development: Draft core and sub-message bullet points outlined on no more than two pages. Messaging should be about your company, about your project, its benefits, why it’s sustainable, how does it improve the community’s quality of life, what are the economic benefits, and how it protects the environment.
3. Draft a Frequently Asked Questions and FACTS Sheets ready to hand out to reporters, allies, and potential recruits to your coalition.
4. If there are white papers, academic/economic reports or studies that affirm your industry and project, then have them on hand.
5. Collect written and video endorsements from influencers. It’s not what you say as the applicant, but who says it for you. Third party voices affirming and endorsing your project lends more credibility and influence on the reporter’s story. Better yet, present the endorsers to the reporter to speaking on the record in favor of the story.
6. Prepare a project website which will encapsulate the content you’ve created and collected. The project website is your electronic press kit that reporters and other stakeholders can find quickly, and digest concise information on the fly. If you’re a public company, then get your allies or coalition partners to sponsor the project website. It doesn’t have to be a Cadillac, high-end website, but a down to earth Toyota will do the job every time! Presenting more than just a static two-dimensional site plan increases the odds for mitigating negative publicity and securing better media coverage.
7. Prime your closest and most influential allies to be ready to go on record when/if a news reporter is dialed in to report on your project. You’ll need third-party voices in the story. Be sure to have them primed to call the reporter after your interview. This adds more pro-project voices to the narrative and counters the opposition’s attacks.
8. Know ahead of time who will be speaking on the record. Ideally, it’s a local representative of the project versus an “out-of-town” developer. Although land-use lawyers representing the project do a good job working with the media, the fact they’re lawyers compromises the credibility of the messaging. I know many lawyers who agree and would rather have the client or local spokesperson engage the media on and off the record.
9. When the reporter calls you out of the blue and you’re not ready, simply ask them when their deadline is, and if they could call you at a time mutually agreeable. This will give you time to prepare. If they’re under an immediate deadline, which most times they are, then execute the next point.
10. If you cannot buy more time to prepare for the interview, ask the print reporter if they would agree to speak at first on background, which is “off the record” before you go on record. Most times they will agree. For the next few moments, you can ask questions, while creating some project context. Don’t say anything you don’t wanted printed, but ask, “Who have you spoken with so far”, “Who else will you be speaking to?”, “What has been said and what are the allegations?” The reporter’s answer will tell you how much they’ve bought into the opposition’s frame and how adversarial they may be with you.
Reporters are often manipulated by the opposition, which is standard operating procedure. In my experience, if you get to the reporter before the opposition or have press documents already in the queue ready to go, you have a better than fair chance of getting a fair to favorable news story. Not every time, but certainly more often compared to waiting for the reporter’s call late in the afternoon when the negative story has mostly been written and they just need a token quote from the developer.
Ideally, the developer will have initiated a call to the reporter or editor to “brief” him/her on the merits of the pending project proposal. If you’re project is that much of a benefit, and you have influencers ready to be quoted, and even public elected officials who are willing to say on the record that they favor the project, pulling the trigger to proactively call the reporter shouldn’t be as difficult.
Especially if you’ve developed a digital media presence to promote and protect your project with a project website and maybe even a Facebook page.
I will write more segments on how to mitigate negative NIMBY publicity and proactively securing fair-to-positive press for your project in the upcoming articles. Stayed tuned.
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Corporate clients audaciously call him NIMBY Whisperer. Anti-development activists maliciously call him NIMBY Slayer. Real estate developers zealously call him to neutralize NIMBY opponents attacking their high-stakes sustainable projects. Over the span of his 25-year career, Patrick Slevin has established himself as an expert in the specialty of integrated public affairs, while earning a national reputation for his exceptional skills to rapidly turn NIMBY controversies into project approvals.
At the age of 27, he was elected one of the youngest mayors in the country in the Tampa Bay city of Safety Harbor, Florida in 1996. As a Florida mayor, Slevin encountered numerous NIMBY crises in one of the most urbanized regions of the country.
Today, Patrick Slevin is the Founder of the Academy of Citizen Engagement, Co-Founder of Citizens for Responsible Government, and Past President of Network of Entrepreneurs & Business Advocates. He leads his integrated public affairs firm, SL7 Consulting, headquartered in Tallahassee, Florida.
Slevin is a two-time Amazon bestselling author on the NIMBY subject matter. His latest bestseller, Breaking Out of the NIMBY Matrix™: Red Pill Success in a Digital NIMBY World was published in 2023. It became an instant Amazon bestseller and industry classic. This follows his successful first book in 2021, Never Lose to NIMBY Opposition Again!: Master the Secrets, Strategies, and Solutions to Turn NIMBY Crisis Into Your Finest Hour, which became a #1 Amazon bestseller.
Patrick is a two-time winner of the prestigious Public Relations Society of America’s Silver Anvil Award of Excellence for Crisis & Issues Management. He was featured in Influence Magazine as a “Great Communicator”. He has been recognized by Campaigns & Elections Magazine as one of the nation’s top political “Movers’ & Shakers”.
Slevin is a veteran of the United States Air Force, where he honorably served in the security forces from 1988 to 1996 for both active duty and ready reserve.
Patrick Slevin resides in Tallahassee, Florida with his wife Sharon where they enjoy their two young grandsons Easton and Logan.