Some of those that set themselves against new development will do everything they can to stoke opposition, including spreading false information. You need to be 'always on' and ready for rapid rebuttal.
We pointed out in this blog just how easily organised opposition campaign groups and indivudal activists can spread false information these days using the power of the internet and social media.
When a group of residents come together to form themselves into a campaign, one of the first things they will do is establish a Facebook group and a Twitter account.
These then act as a focal point for other concerned locals and others that just want to know more about what you're planning.
Ideally, you want people to come to you for information because, let's face it, they're your plans so if anyone knows all about them it's you.
But stakeholders like to be able to source independent corroboration of the things you say, just for peace of mind because they'll (quite understandably) have slight doubts about the veracity of the facts you share owing to your obvious vested interests.
The problem is that in seeking out independent information, they will inevitably encounter 'alternative facts', especially on social media.
Example: How the truth can quickly go up in smoke
Whenever and wherever a company advances plans to build waste-to-energy infrastructure in the UK, whether for waste wood or leftover residual waste that can't easily be recycled (including Refuse Derived Fuel or RDF), and regardless of the intended process (moving grate or fluidised bed incineration, pyrolisis or advanced plasma etc) an opposition campaign will quickly coalesce around it.
To begin with, this will mostly be comprised of concerned locals that don't really know enough about it but that immediately have doubts and feel as though they need to come together with others of like mind.
This is perfectly natural and there's nothing at all wrong with it - after all, we are social creatures and we often seek comfort from being part of a larger group.
But very quickly, the social media feeds and Facebook groups of these residents will be inflitrated by activist campaigners. They'll start to supply plausible sounding information and 'evidence' of how waste-to-energy plants make people ill, spew toxic emissions and dreadful odours, discourage recycling and, worse, are part of a conspiracy to keep flooding the world with plastics that are choking the oceans.
And, before you know it, some local people that may have otherwise been satisfied by your proposals or that might have been minded to oppose them (but only on legitimate planning grounds), will have been 'radicalised' and soon start spreading myths and even actively agitating - which only leads to more people objecting to your plans.
All of this can happen in a matter of weeks once details of your plans enter the public domain - and it's not limited to waste-to-energy plants; we see the same in large-scale renewables, shale gas and even housing.
Without rebuttal, perception becomes the reality
If, as the developer, you don't keep abreast of local (and national) activism relating to your project, and don't rebut the false claims that circulate, myths will surely fill the vacuum.
Then, even reasonable people will start to wonder at your absence from the debate, and many will conclude that you have something to hide, are afraid of engaging with communities, or, worse still, that the alternative facts they've come across are true.
Public opinion can quickly harden from this point if you're not actively taking steps to bust myths, rebut false stories and genuinely seeking to provide reassurance.
Countering negative news
There are a number of ways that, as the developer, you can seek to counter negative news whilst at the same time genuinely helping stakeholders reach an informed view of your project proposals.
Firstly, it's important to monitor social media for mentions of your company and the project in particular. You can then choose to engage with some social media users to answer their questions and provide them with facts.
Secondly, it helps to brief local journalists so that they can more readily separate fact from fiction - making (some) of them less likely to run 'clickbait' headlines and poorly researched articles based on press releases from campaigners.
Thirdly, whenever news outlets do publish unhelpful articles that contain alternative facts sourced from campaigners, you need to be ready to quickly issue rebuttals - whether that involves insisting on corrections, the publication of follow-up articles that correct distortions, or just statements issued on your website and social feeds. The more you push back against bad journalism, where it exists, the more likely you are to get a right of reply prior to publication and a fairer share of media voice.
And, lastly, it's always beneficial if you can find trusted, independent third party experts and institutions that can provide some balance and make sure it's easy for stakeholders to access credible information.
Striking the right balance
If you don't quite get the balance right, you can end-up looking overly reactive and always on the defensive.
So, while it's important to counter myths with some form of rapid rebuttal as they arise, it's also important to get out on the front foot as often as you can.
Proactively engaging with people, and patiently explaining how and why the alternative facts they're being presented with are inaccurate, can reap big rewards.
Creating the space for informed opinion and better local decision-making
It's important to remember that ensuring myths are busted, and intentionally shared mistruths are shredded, isn't just about safeguarding your reputation - it's about the need to create the conditions for people to make up their minds based on access to valid information.
If you need help with social media monitoring, 'always on' rebuttal and finding trusted independent advocates, email theteam [at] 52Mconsulting.com or use the live chat function and we'll be in touch to discuss your requirements.