There is no vaccine to stop project opposition

The stubborn growth of the anti-vaccination movement has stumped public health experts for years now. When the anti-vaxxer phenomenon first popped up, experts figured the only reason people wouldn’t vaccinate their children was simple ignorance of the personal and societal benefits of vaccination. After all, who in their right mind would want polio?

The solution, they thought, was straightforward: provide the facts and people will change their minds and their behaviour. There were two simple ideas behind this solution. The first is the idea that public scepticism is caused primarily by a lack of sufficient knowledge. The second is the idea that by providing the adequate information to overcome this lack of knowledge, also known as a “knowledge deficit,” behaviour will change. Problem solved.

Except that the problem was not solved. And the “knowledge deficit” model has since been widely discredited. Giving more information to people does not change their views: in fact, it can further entrench them. This is a small but important piece of social science developers need to keep in mind when trying to build support to get a project approved.

I say this because this widely discredited approach remains the bedrock of most developers’ efforts to quell opposition. It is an approach that assumes that if people only knew the benefits of a project, they would support it; and that the only reason they oppose it is they don’t understand it well enough. So developers hire PR teams to deploy an arsenal of direct mail, advertising, press releases and outreach efforts to inform the misinformed, and to change their minds and win their hearts with killer facts.

This approach seems workable in theory, but too often fails in practice. It assumes, wrongly, that people who oppose a project can somehow be educated, dazzled or herded into supporting it, or at least prevented from opposing it. Yes, it is important to inform the public about the specifics of a project and its benefits to the community, but this approach only has a few of the elements needed to win project approval. Much like education efforts around vaccines, it assumes that the project is inherently beneficial and that people who are reasonable and logical will be unable to oppose it when presented with the facts.

It assumes that opposition is the result of ignorance in one way, shape or form, and that given enough information and community outreach the project will win support and approval. It assumes that repetition of key messages will eventually help the opposition see the light. It assumes that opponents will put aside their private concerns for the greater good of the community. It assumes wrong.

More often than not, more information provides more ammunition and stiffens the resolve of project opponents. Where developers promote more economic activity, opponents just see more traffic. As a result much of the effort spent trying to turn them into supporters is wasted. No matter how many fact sheets and microsites, the end result remains the same: petitions to stop the project, negative press, hostile public hearings and council meetings packed with vocal opponents with nary a supporter in sight.

As with vaccine efforts, the knowledge deficit model of communication when applied to permitting doesn’t work the way you think it should. Simply providing information in the hope of changing hearts and minds isn’t going to get the votes needed to get the project approved. And that’s where your efforts should be focused: on securing the votes needed to get a project approved.

At a local level, the elected officials and the voters who elect them are very close, and their numbers small. Local government can be influenced by a relatively small number of voters. A small crowd of angry voters can be effective in swaying politicians. By the same token, a small number of supporters can provide balance and the assurances a politician needs to vote in favour of a project. There may be no vaccine to inoculate developers from public opposition, but vaccines can provide us with valuable lessons on how – and how not – to manage it.

Kevin Powers is managing principal of Project Advocacy Inc., a subsidiary of Campbell Strategies, and is focused on helping project developers facing public and government opposition.

Find him at or email him at [email protected]


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