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"Public relations" for us, is a shorthand expression for all those communications activities that are designed to "sell" the public something or provide a positive spin on problems or potentially difficult situations. Public relations is a perfectly legitimate type of public communications, however, in our experience, it simply does not work in situations in which organizations are facing difficult decisions about how to solve tough problems. "Public involvement," on the other hand, invites the public to share in the problem-solving process and come to their own conclusions. It works by building a basis for shared recognition of a problem to be solved, thus motivating members of the public to grapple with solutions which they otherwise might not wish to consider, because every solution to the problem will likely hurt at least some of them in some way. UA's experience clearly shows that such solutions cannot be "sold"; they can, however, be accepted or agreed to, if a strategic public involvement process is used.

Quite the contrary. What we're talking about are problems which naturally arise out of the complex environments in which organizations and agencies operate. The existence of problems in no way implies a shortcoming or failure on the part of those organizations and agencies. In providing their services to their clients and customers, organizations and agencies are in the business of identifying, analyzing and solving such problems. It's their very reason for existence. If your organization weren't trying to solve problems, you wouldn't be doing your job. Acknowledging problems and trying to solve them, therefore, are nothing for an organization to be ashamed of.

  1. Through many years of experience, we have come to recognize that it is not a project's supporters, but rather its opponents who are the key to whether or not that project will be implemented.
  2. We employ a deliberate public involvement/project management strategy, called Consent Building, to...

    UA has applied and refined the Consent Building strategy over almost a quarter century of professional public involvement consulting. Consent Building, therefore, is not an abstract theory. It has evolved through our and others' professional experience, both successes and failures, into a learnable strategy that you can use. Consent Building has been proven in the more than 400 successful projects which UA has undertaken.

    It is not the goal of public involvement to "stir up" people. However, in our experience, many agencies and organizations commit a grave error, one that is often fatal to their projects: they avoid notifying interests who could potentially be affected by a project for fear of "stirring them up." Eventually, these interests will learn of the proposed project, but then they not only will be opposed to it, they also will feel that the agency has ignored them or tried to sneak it past them. That will "stir up" opposition interests much more than effective public involvement ever could, but in a way that is likely to impede, not enhance, the prospects of implementing a project. This kind of error, which unfortunately is quite common, is one of the many "process violations" which UA's public involvement strategy helps our clients avoid.

The American public is extremely sensitive to perceived violations of cultural norms about fairness. We call these "process violations." Agencies and organizations often commit these violations out of fear or ignorance of what needs to be done. Examples of process violations include:

    There is a basic fact of life that agencies and other organizations must face up to in today's planning and decision-making environment: Even a tiny minority of affected interests has the ability to stop, seriously delay or water down projects, plans and proposals via lawsuits, pressure on decision makers, ballot initiatives, and so on. We call any such action a project "veto." Consent Building is intended to achieve enough agreement among all key interests to implement a project, or, conversely, to avoid a project veto by any of those interests.

    As the first step in our development of a public involvement program, UA, in consultation with the client, develops an "objectives driven" plan, that is, a plan tailored to meet the specific needs, objectives, schedule and issues faced by that client's project. Techniques and activities are planned to support and achieve project objectives in an orderly manner, not as a delaying tactic to impede progress toward a solution. Effective public involvement usually means that project planning requires more time in the short run, but will result in earlier project implementation and a significant saving in time, grief and expense in the long run. Too often, our clients have come to us after wasting many years and millions of dollars on projects that lacked effective public involvement and were, therefore, stopped. We want to help our clients avoid those kinds of delays and added costs.

    In weighing whether your project might need a public involvement component, consider the following questions. How big or important is this project? How costly? Is this project essential to the mission of your organization? Is your project controversial? Could it have adverse effects on key constituencies or stakeholders? Are there interests who have opposed similar actions in the past? Could any part of your project raise fears or concerns among any interests? Does your project require the completion and approval of an environmental document, such as a federal Environmental Impact Statement or a California Environmental Impact Report? If you can answer "yes" to any of these questions, your project will engage members of the public whether you want to or not, and may benefit from a public involvement component.

    UA also prepares "veto vulnerability" analyses for clients. Such an analysis could help you determine what the prospects for implementing your project are and whether public involvement might be needed for it.

    That depends both on the type of project and how UA's services are used by the client. Our projects have ranged from multi-year, full-service efforts costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to limited consulting support costing very little. Normally, UA approaches a project in two steps:

    Step 1: In consultation with the client, we assess the project's public involvement needs and prepare a customized public involvement plan that identifies those public involvement needs/objectives unique to that client's situation, recommended activities or techniques to achieve those objectives, the timing of those activities, and who — consultant or client — should have the lead and support roles in implementing each part of the plan. On the basis of an approved plan, UA then prepares a scope of work and budget for our services to meet the real needs of each project.

    Step 2: UA and the client implement the public involvement program in accordance with the approved plan, workscope and budget.

    UA can also help clients to save money and develop in-house expertise by turning over much of the public involvement program implementation to client staff, by providing up-front training and coaching support throughout the project.

    UA can provide a rate sheet to prospective clients upon request.

It certainly will be useful if your public information personnel learn about Consent Building, but that alone will not be sufficient for your organization to implement this strategy effectively. Consent Building is not a communications or public information add-on, but rather a project implementation strategy. As such, it needs to be developed and executed in parallel with the technical project planning and implementation. Therefore, to be effective, Consent Building requires the active support of senior management as well as the understanding of and active implementation by the line managers and technical staff responsible for the project.

To ensure that all key personnel within a client's organization grasp and are able to use Consent Building effectively, we routinely do one or both of the following:

  1. At a minimum, provide client managers and staff with a brief orientation session on Consent Building just prior to initiating our engagement with the client's project. These sessions are completed in one-half day or less and offer an overview which equips clients with the basic elements of Consent Building which they can apply immediately to the project at hand.
  2. Strongly recommend, for organizations with extremely different projects or which want to make the commitment to mastering Consent Building and its applications, that they participate in a two-to-three day training on the Systematic Development of Informed Consent (SDIC) delivered by the Institute for Participatory Management and Planning; Monterey, California: (831) 373-4292.

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