The planning, permitting and licensing process for any
pipeline project these days is likely to be contentious. You can’t afford to
leave any part of the process to chance, even if it’s appealing to stay quiet
and hope your project stays under the radar. Proactive, transparent engagement
is the only way to take control of the narrative and ensure that
decision-makers are equipped with the full picture.
Know your project, know your community
First and foremost, you have to be ale to readily explain your own project, in as much detail as people want. It sounds like common sense, but you might be surprised at how many operators get tripped up by detailed questions about exactly what they have in the ground. If you don’t have the details of your system, you can’t accurately predict probabilities of system failure—which means you can’t convince others that you’re prepared to manage them. One key lesson many operators have learned is to bring real, experienced operational personnel to these meetings – not only spokespeople from their Public Affairs firm.
But your homework doesn’t end there. You have to understand the community where you’re working. What is its history? What are its challenges? Who are the most prominent voices—those likely to support or oppose you? This knowledge will ground you so that you can do the most important thing in any public process: show that you’re listening to any community concerns, and that you understand them. It’s also this context that will allow you to talk about benefits in a compelling, meaningful way.
Reframe the debate with broader facts and benefits
Some opponents in a community might say that they won’t benefit from a project, but the picture becomes clearer when you help to connect the dots. Maybe your natural gas pipeline provides more than half of their power, but they don’t see it because the generating plant is 100 miles away. Maybe the community is trying to reinvigorate an industry with major factories nearby, but no one is connecting the dots that those factories will need reliable, affordable power too.
And a cost-centered debate isn’t just lopsided, it’s actually unfair to the public. Most people don’t have the frame of reference to do an accurate cost/benefit analysis on their own, and that can mean a narrative that’s disproportionately focused on costs and risks. When you take control of disseminating the facts about your project’s benefits, stakeholders can make their own evaluations based on the full story.
By proactively sharing more facts and expanding the context of the dialogue, we can move from a conversation about costs to a conversation about acceptable risk. When we get behind the wheel of a car, we are making an educated decision about risk vs. benefits, just as we are when we shop online. The benefits of your pipeline project might well outweigh the perceived risks, but you can’t assume stakeholders will reach that conclusion on their own.
These facts—about where and how they get their power, about how your project can impact reliability and affordability, about the real probability of risks and the processes you have in place to manage them—allow you to shape a stronger narrative around your project. But you also have to think about how you communicate the message. Find ways to relay your information that reflect the many ways people process information: through visuals as well as text, through audio and video, in brochures, online, and in face-to-face conversations.
Earn trust by engaging trusted allies
You know the community like the back of your hand, you’ve carefully thought through all of the ways your project will benefit them, and you’ve created materials that transparently tell your story in a variety of formats. But there’s still more you can do to increase your odds of success. Remember that part of your community homework where you got to know the prominent voices on all sides? Engage with potential allies to ensure that when their opinion is sought, they understand your story as well.
This can mean business leaders, legislators, or emergency responders. But whomever you’re speaking with, be prepared to listen to their concerns, answer their questions completely, and equip them with all the material they need to understand and share your story.
These steps won’t guarantee that your process will go smoothly, without a single hiccup—but they will significantly improve your odds of success. By showing that you listen and understand the issues, and proactively educating stakeholders about the ways your project will help them obtain reliable, affordable energy to meet all their needs, you can stay one step ahead.