No need for dark arts in support of controversial-yet-critical infrastructure - 52M Consulting Limited

No need for dark arts

Despite the claims made about the work of companies like ours, it really doesn't involve the practice of PR 'dark arts'.


Organised opposition groups that campaign against controversial-yet-critical infrastructure can often be seen and heard claiming that the stakeholder engagement work we and others perform involves the practice of the so-called 'dark arts' of PR.

It doesn't. Or at least not the way we do it at 52M anyway.

Before I explain what our work does involve, let's explore what these PR dark arts look like.

In 2018, following a barrage of criticism, Facebook reportedly employed the services of Definers, a Washington-DC-based consulting firm specialising in opposition research, which it is claimed sent dossiers of information to journalists and sought to redirect their scrutiny towards Facebook's rivals, according to an investigation by the New York Times.

That is what many people would describe as dark arts or 'spinning'.

The trouble is it has a corrosive effect. Positive local and national planning outcomes for infrastructure development proposals can be helped without resorting to such tactics.

So, what do we do that's different?

It's true to say that we will assist our clients to develop and deliver key messages to relevant audiences. But that's just good-old conventional PR, and only involves the supply of facts to help people reach informed opinions. We will also brief journalists about the development schemes we're working on, but there's nothing untoward about managing media relations. We also facilitate effective two-way dialogue between developers and communities. Our real skill, however, lies in finding natural local backers of infrastructure development projects and encouraging them to take action in support, giving them the right tools to do so - which is, in many ways, very much allied to straightforward sales and marketing, and, indeed, relies on the same techniques that businesses the world over use to get us to buy their wares.

There's nothing dark about identifying target markets, segmenting them, then using a variety of communications channels to connect with the audiences they contain - channels like social media, direct mail, e-marketing, exhibitions and events.

The reason organised opposition groups tend to level this accusation at stakeholder engagement consultancies is because they want to believe - and encourage others to believe - that support for development proposals can only ever be 'manufactured' through shady lobbying activities.

The reality is that infrastructure development in all its forms does benefit from support in the communities where it's proposed, but that support is typically silent.

For most schemes, it's common to find that around 10-20% of local people naturally favour it; up to 30% will actively and vocally oppose it; whilst the remaining 50% - so, the majority - will have no strong opinion either way.

What this means is that 60-70% of people will say nothing when they are publicly consulted on their views, leaving the 30% that are motivated to raise objections through the democratic planning process to create the false impression that dissenting voices are representative of the majority which, in turn, leads to decision-makers to err.

Our job involves correcting this obvious imbalance by simply encouraging natural supporters to join in and have their say.

If motivating people to engage in democracy is a dark art, then every time a campaign group like Greenpeace, or the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) etc, encourages people to sign a petition on 38 Degrees against a particular development or planning policy, that's surely dark too...

This article appeared first on LinkedIn here.

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