Posted: March 30, 2010
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Article SummaryWhen opponents seek a meeting with your embattled company or agency, it’s as much a dare as an invitation, and in most cases you would be wise to say yes. Getting invited onto your opponents’ turf poses special problems and special opportunities. It’s not mostly a chance to win converts by rebutting false arguments. Rather, it is a chance to ameliorate outrage (especially on the part of those in the room who are more worried than hostile) by demonstrating that you are willing to listen respectfully to your most vituperative critics and to take at least some of their concerns onboard. Some of the recommendations in this column apply to all meetings with opponents, even if you're running the meeting; other recommendations are particular to meetings that are actually run by your opponents.

Hostile Meetings:
When Opponents Want to Talk

Several times a year I get a call from a client: A group of opponents wants to talk, and the client needs some advice on how to handle the invitation.

The specifics vary. The issue may be an ongoing problem (current factory emissions, for example); or a “heritage” problem (past emissions – their health effects and your cleanup plans); or a potential future problem (a proposed expansion of an existing facility or a siting controversy over a proposed new facility).

Whatever the specifics, the battle lines have already been drawn. The four key groups in most risk controversies are:

  • You and your supporters;
  • Decision-makers – especially local politicians and non-local regulators;
  • Concerned stakeholders checking out the issue – who may either lose interest or turn into opponents (or conceivably even supporters); and
  • Opponents.

Of course a fifth group is usually the largest of all: people who simply aren’t interested, at least not yet. But they’re not coming to any meetings.

Much depends on which of the four key groups is in charge of the meeting:

  • Your meeting. It may be voluntary or required; it may be a one-off or a monthly affair; it may be an “open house” where participants get to wander and ask questions or a mass meeting where they get to vent collectively and attract TV cameras. The distinguishing characteristic: You’re in charge (at least theoretically).
  • The government’s meeting. It may be a formal “hearing” chaired by regulatory agency bureaucrats; the “public comment” part of a city council meeting; or just an open-ended “community consultation” session. You’re invited and basically you have to come. But you don’t get to set the agenda. (As in the M&M’s candy commercial, you’re not so much on the guest list as on the menu.)
  • Concerned stakeholders’ meeting. This is the rarest of the four: a meeting aimed at helping interested parties understand the issues and make up their own minds, run by a group that isn’t on any side (in the U.S., the League of Women Voters is the paradigm). Although lots of meetings try to meet the needs of the uncommitted, and lots more pretend to be trying, most either end up as shootouts between the two sides or are hijacked by one side.
  • Your opponents’ meeting. It may be an ad hoc gathering of likeminded stakeholders or the regular monthly meeting of Neighbors United To Stop You. It may take place in somebody’s living room or the largest meeting hall in town. Its defining characteristic: If you come, you’ll be in enemy territory.

Obviously this is an oversimplified schema. Government officials, for example, don’t always function as decision-makers. Sometimes they’re organizing and leading the opposition. Sometimes they’re the target of the opposition’s greatest outrage … and the ones calling me to ask how to handle the meeting. And meetings can have multiple sponsors, as when you and your key opponents sit down privately to talk turkey and try to negotiate a compromise.

Still, most meetings are run by you, the government, a neutral third party, or your opponents. In this column I want to focus on how to handle meetings run by your opponents.

That’s only one kind of hostile meeting, of course. Any meeting can be a hostile meeting, no matter who’s “running” it. But getting invited onto your opponents’ turf poses special problems and special opportunities. Some of what follows applies to all hostile meetings; some of it is particular to hostile meetings run by your opponents.

1. Accept the invitation.

link up to indexWith rare exceptions, when your opponents want to talk you have far more to gain than to lose by accepting.

Maybe they want to explore the possibility of reaching an accommodation. Maybe they want to try to provoke you into saying something they can use against you – something that will further rile their allies and perhaps even win them some new allies. Probably they just want to berate you and see how you take it.

What should you want? Three things: to listen to their concerns and grievances; to show that you are listening; and to respond in ways that won’t add fuel to the fire … and might even help bank the fire a little. You can’t accomplish these things if you’re not there.

When opponents want to talk, their invitation is tantamount to a dare. Refusing is bound to give them a new talking point: “What is the XYZ Corp. afraid of? Why won’t they come and answer our questions?” So even if the deck will be stacked against you, it’s wise to say yes.

The main exception: a media ambush where you’ll have no chance to make your case (or even to finish a sentence), while your opponents will be free to play on the audience’s emotions. I’d think twice before agreeing to appear on a radio talk show with three parents who think your facility gave their kids cancer. But I would certainly agree to meet privately with the three parents, even if they plan to bring along some of their friends and supporters.

While you should usually accept invitations to attend your opponents’ meeting, don’t crash their meeting – ever. If you weren’t invited but you want to come, ask permission in advance, or at least announce yourself and ask if it’s okay to stay. “We may be able to respond to questions if any arise, but mostly we’d like a chance to listen, to get a firsthand understanding of people’s concerns. Of course if you want to talk strategy or something like that, let us know and we’ll leave.”

Don’t go incognito. Don’t do anything that smacks of spying, even if it’s completely legal. “Our lawyer joined the group and paid her dues so she’s entitled to be there,” a client once told me. But when people learned that she had been sitting quietly in the back of the room for meeting after meeting, a lot of concerned stakeholders turned into dedicated opponents.

2. If you have a choice, aim for an informal meeting, not a formal one. Keep the event as “social” as you can.

link up to indexIt’s not up to you whether your opponents invite you to an event in a meeting hall or one in somebody’s living room. You should say yes to either one … and you should be prepared for what you thought would be a dozen people in a living room to morph without much warning into a hundred people (plus a few reporters) in a hall.

But living rooms are the ideal venue for meeting with opponents. I realize it’s awfully inefficient to meet with people a dozen at a time. But there are criteria more important than efficiency. Intimacy – a chance to socialize with the enemy – is one of them.

Most people are naturally more courteous, even friendlier, at social gatherings than in formal meeting settings. A hostile meeting in someone’s living room can go either way. Help make it go the “social” way.

There are lots of obvious implications, once you take the principle seriously:

  • If food is offered, take some. Take some coffee too.
  • Don’t sit behind a table. Sit where you have to put your papers on the floor and hold your coffee cup in your lap. Ideally, everybody will have stuff in their laps; it’s hard to gesture violently or even shout loudly when you don’t want to spill your coffee.
  • Bring a contribution. Better yet, ask your host in advance what you can bring. “We have a huge coffee urn. And Frank makes a great cheese danish.”
  • Try to dress the way everybody else will be dressed. Suits are probably too formal – but jeans and tee shirts are almost certainly too casual. If you’re in doubt, call your host and ask what you should wear. That small demonstration of social insecurity may actually help humanize the evening.
  • Don’t sit together. If there’s mingling time before the meeting starts, mingle. Mingle again when the structured part of the meeting is over.
  • Don’t leave until after some others have left, but don’t stay till the bitter end either. Odds are some participants are waiting for you to go so they can debrief together.

Make full use of the “social” nature of a living room meeting. But don’t forget you’re in hostile territory. Don’t say anything off-the-record, for example; there may be a reporter in the crowd or a tape recorder under the couch.

If a more formal meeting is inevitable, still keep it as “social” as you can. The back room of a restaurant or a church basement is a better venue than an auditorium. Any venue where food and drink are permitted is better than any venue where they’re not. And aim for a venue where your opponents will feel comfortable and in control, not where you will. The worst of all venues for a hostile meeting: the conference room at your facility. Not only is it your turf. They think it’s a physically dangerous place to be!

3. Don’t take over the meeting. Act “small.”

link up to indexWhen ordinary citizens invite representatives of a multinational corporation (or a big government agency) to come talk to them, they feel small, like David up against Goliath. They may not act small; they may bluster as they aim their slingshots at you. But count on it: They feel small.

So do you, probably (hard as that may be for your opponents to believe). After all, you’re in hostile territory.

The difference is that you should act the way you feel: small. You’re not trying to cow your hostile stakeholders into submission. You’re trying to calm them into thoughtful reconsideration. The more fully they realize the extent of their own control, the better.

Your opponents are likely to have considerable control (or at least influence) over the future of your facility and the way you manage it – less control than they wish, but probably more than they think (and more than you wish). It is in your interest for them to realize that, rather than imagining that the fix is in and all they can do is throw temper tantrums. (For more on this, see #21.)

At the very least, it is in your interest for them to feel in control of tonight’s meeting!

This, too, has lots of implications:

  • Don’t bring too many people with you – usually no more than three. And preferably not all middle-aged white males. (No more than one lawyer; zero is better.)
  • Don’t bring a lot of audiovisual aids – no PowerPoint presentations, no nine-foot maps or scale models. You’ll be doing more listening than talking anyway – and if you do get a chance to talk, it’s fine if you have to dig through a pile of papers for the right chart and then everybody has to gather around or pass it from hand to hand.
  • Don’t take over the meeting. You didn’t call it, and you’re not the host. If your host asks if you want to give an introductory presentation, you don’t; suggest it might be better if he or she gives one. Recommend opening up for questions and comments as soon as possible.
  • Bring appropriate literature to hand out, but leave it in the car. Wait till someone asks a question too detailed to answer orally … or, better yet, till someone asks whether you’ve got anything to hand out. Then ask if people want you to go out to your car and get your box of literature. (And ask someone to help you carry it.)

And so forth. It’s easy to come up with additional ways to look small … once you stop trying to look big.

I wrote these bullet points with a living room meeting in mind. If the meeting is larger and the venue is more formal, it may be appropriate to set up a literature table and have a few audio-visual aids. Even so, keep reminding yourself that you really, really don’t want to take over the meeting. You’re on their turf, and it should show. Think small.

One vivid way to confirm your opponents’ power – to make them big and you small – is to let them see that being on their turf is making you nervous. You can say so directly: “It was a little hard walking into the room this evening, knowing that many of the people here think what my company is doing in this town is pretty horrible. But I’m grateful that you invited me.” At a minimum, don’t imply that you’re delighted and fully comfortable. The first lie at many hostile meetings is the first thing the company spokesperson says: “I’m glad to see so many people here tonight” or “I’m very happy to be here.”

4. Try to have children present.

link up to indexBig or small, living room or auditorium, hostile meetings go better when there are children in the room. A middle school social studies class serves as a wonderful external superego; nobody wants to act out while the kids are watching. Teenagers are even better. Parents are trying hard to teach their own teens how to stand up for themselves without being obnoxious. With teens watching, we all become role models.

It may be difficult to accomplish this with a small meeting in somebody’s living room – but it’s not necessarily impossible. If your host has children of an appropriate age, suggest that they might want to stay and watch democracy in action, and maybe they could invite a friend over to watch with them.

5. Don’t assume everybody is hostile. Some may be only worried so far.

link up to indexEven though I often talk about “outrage” as if it were a single variable, the distinction between worried and hostile is crucial. People who are moderately outraged (concerned or worried) are often looking for reassurance. They are hoping to learn that your facility is not a serious risk or that others are already doing a good job of holding your feet to the fire – so they can go back to their lives. But for people who are highly outraged (angry or hostile), your issue has already become an important part of their lives that they don’t want to give up. They are searching for evidence that they’re right to think your facility is horribly dangerous.

A key signal is whether people applaud bad news and jeer reassuring information. Those who do so may already be convinced that you are lying. Or they may be more deeply committed to being right than to being safe – so outraged that they want you to be lying so they can hang onto their outrage at you. They are beyond worried; they’re truly hostile. Your long-term goal is to lure them down off that perch (assuming you are right that the risk posed by your activities is really quite low). Your short-term and mid-term goal is to keep others – those who are only worried so far – from joining them there.

6. Hostile people will mostly want to vent. You should come prepared to listen.

link up to indexThis isn’t just a matter of keeping your mouth shut. I’m talking about active listening. Take notes (but ask permission first). Don’t interrupt, except perhaps to ask a clarifying question – a genuine clarifying question, nothing with an edge. Nod your head from time to time to show you’re listening; don’t shake your head or murmur “not so.” Try to look interested, not incredulous or irritated.

Worried stakeholders may ask you real questions, but hostile stakeholders will have mostly rhetorical questions, if they have questions at all. The first time you’re asked a question, especially if it’s rhetorical, demur. “I think it may be premature for me to start answering questions. There are people here who haven’t spoken yet, who have been waiting patiently to say what they came here to say.” Don’t talk until the room has united behind the premise that it’s your turn, until they’re shushing each other and virtually demanding that you talk.

7. Orient to the most hostile people in the room.

link up to indexAssuming a mix of hostile and worried stakeholders, focus your attention on those who are most hostile. One key goal for the meeting is for the less hostile stakeholders to see you being respectfully attentive to your most vitriolic opponents. If the worried stakeholders don’t get their questions answered because the hostile stakeholders have hijacked the meeting, that’s okay. Find other ways to address their concerns – make arrangements to meet with them later separately, give them literature to read, etc.

Meanwhile, let them see you deferring respectfully to the angriest, rudest people in the room. They’ll be less likely to adopt that style themselves, and more likely to back off a bit in order to distinguish themselves from their bad-mannered neighbors: “I’m not rude like Susan.”

There’s a risk communication seesaw operating here. If you’re steadfastly respectful toward Susan (your most hostile opponent), her neighbors will feel free to roll their eyes and think she’s awfully extreme. They may even criticize you for failing to shut her down. But if you do shut her down, or if you’re rolling your eyes and acting like you think she’s awfully extreme, her neighbors are far likelier to identify with her and join her against you.

8. React humanly to the hostility.

link up to indexIt is part of your job to be respectful toward hostile stakeholders even when they are not being respectful toward you. Whether that moderates their hostility or not, it will help prevent worried stakeholders from becoming hostile too.

But if you’re coldly courteous, you risk coming off as passive-aggressive. This is all too common in interactions between hostile stakeholders and corporate or government officials. They yell, and you’re rigidly polite. Nor will it work to be blandly courteous. If you look like their attack isn’t bothering you at all, you risk giving the impression of uncaring imperviousness.

The right balance: Look like you’re listening hard and determined to keep listening hard, even though you’re finding what they’re saying very painful to hear. That’s not a trick. It’s what’s actually happening when you’re taking hostile criticism onboard. You just need to let it show.

9. Be empathic but not intrusive.

link up to indexWhen hostile stakeholders attack, the natural temptation is to counterattack. You know that’s a mistake, and you’re rightly determined to respond empathically instead. In particular, you understand the importance of acknowledging your stakeholders’ concerns – not just the substantive component of those concerns, but their emotional component as well. When people are obviously angry or fearful about your operations or your plans, it is offensive to respond like a technocrat, as if there were no emotional tensions in the room.

Much of what has been written about empathy and empathic communication focuses on noticing how other people feel and letting them see that you have noticed. The evil to be avoided is obliviousness.

But especially when dealing with hostile stakeholders, there is another evil to be avoided as well: intrusiveness. “I know how you feel,” for example, almost invariably triggers an angry “No you don’t!” Paradoxically, it sounds a lot more empathic to say “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to….” Similarly, “I can see how angry you are” intrudes too directly. Consider instead: “a lot of people would probably be angry about…” or “a woman I was talking with last week said she was angry about…” or “I once lived near a controversial site like this one and what really made me angry was….” Telling other people how they feel is presumptuous and intrusive, even if you’re dead right about how they feel.

The essence of empathy is finding a middle ground between obliviousness and intrusiveness – being sensitive to your stakeholders’ feelings without accusing them of their feelings.

Similarly, don’t be in a hurry to tell hostile stakeholders what their issues are. Usually you should wait for them to raise a hot-button issue, and then echo it: “I think I’m hearing a lot of concern in the room tonight about….” If a crucial issue isn’t being raised and you need to introduce it yourself, do so indirectly: “A lot of people at other meetings have told me…. I wonder if some people here tonight might be feeling that way too.” Getting the issue into the room is empathic; putting it onto the table is intrusive.

10. Don’t tolerate a dangerous situation.

link up to indexPeople who are hostile and rude are one thing. People who are dangerous are something else entirely.

If at any point in the meeting you or anyone in your group feels threatened, take the feeling seriously. Tell your host you feel at risk and you think you should leave now. If you think it’s appropriate, call the police. If you think it might be appropriate, call the police.

11. Stay away from doing “crap rebuttal.”

link up to indexWhenever hostile stakeholders are letting loose, some of what they have to say is valid grievances. Some of it is exaggerated complaints that have a germ of truth. And some of it is crap. If you’re like most people, when you finally get the floor you’ll be tempted to ignore the valid grievances, ignore the germ of truth in the exaggerated complaints, and rebut the crap.

Don’t do that. Crap rebuttal may help you manage your own outrage, but it will only exacerbate the outrage of your hostile stakeholders. Of course you shouldn’t validate their crap either. Implying that your critics are right about things you believe they’re wrong about isn’t honest and isn’t sustainable, so it isn’t good outrage management.

Eventually you’re going to have to discuss the most contentious issues, the ones you think they’re wrong about. But don’t start there. Look for valid grievances you can honestly validate.

12. Hostile stakeholders always have valid grievances. Always. Find some and validate them.

link up to indexIf you look for valid grievances you can honestly validate, you will find some. If you don’t find any, you’re not looking hard enough.

The lowest-hanging fruit, more often than not, is process. Your stakeholders’ technical concerns may all be crap – though I doubt it – but some of their process concerns are bound to be valid:

  • “Our outreach hasn’t been nearly aggressive enough. It’s true that our emissions figures are on our website, but that’s not good enough. When we learned that we were one of the biggest chromium emitters in the state, we should have made sure our neighbors knew what we had found and what we were planning to do about it. A lot of people justifiably feel like we were keeping the information quiet.”
  • “Even though we think we chose a good site for this regional landfill, it sure makes sense that many people here tonight feel unfairly targeted. Why should you get stuck with all the waste from the whole region!”

A lot of the outrage people attach to their substantive, technical concerns has its roots in process. Validating that your company has been arrogant and unresponsive – and promising to do better (and then doing better!) – is a lot more useful early on than debating whether you really contaminated the groundwater or whether property values are really going to plummet. At some point, of course, you will have to address substantive issues in detail. You can acknowledge process failures right from the start.

13. Validate the reasonableness of substantive concerns even if you can’t validate their accuracy.

link up to indexIt is virtually impossible to convince people that a strongly held but mistaken belief is mistaken unless you first acknowledge that it is reasonable – that it isn’t stupid.

Thus: “Given how long we have had an odor problem at this plant, many people are quite properly worried that the proposed new unit might make the problem worse rather than better. And whenever there’s an unfamiliar odor, or even a familiar odor, it is reasonable to worry that the odor might signal a dangerous toxin. The burden of proof is on us to prove to you that the current occasional odor doesn’t represent a threat to your family’s health and that the new unit will make the odor from the plant less frequent and less bothersome, not more.”

14.Watch out for contemptuous words.

link up to indexHostile stakeholders are prickly. They take offense easily. Unintentionally giving offense will undermine your goal: to demonstrate your willingness to listen respectfully and find appropriate ways to take their criticisms onboard.

Some words are obviously offensive – “panic,” “hysterical,” “irrational,” and the like. You probably know already that you should avoid those.

But here’s a word that’s quite likely to sneak into your messaging, though it’s virtually guaranteed to give offense: “perception” (or “perceive,” “perceived,” etc.). This is one of the most common ways companies pull rank – usually unconsciously. Company spokespeople never talk about their own “perceptions” of the risks associated with their facilities; they have “data” so they “know” what the “real risks” are … while their stakeholders are misled by mere “perceptions.”

At the very least, show your respect by referring to your stakeholders “concerns” rather than their “perceptions.” And if their concerns are valid, say so explicitly – and then stop calling them “concerns” and start calling them problems with the facility.

15. Focus on responsiveness – past, present, and future.

link up to indexOne of the underlying issues in most risk controversies is the company’s willingness to be responsive to stakeholder concerns. Hostile stakeholders are especially attuned to responsiveness. They don’t want to be told that their concerns are mistaken (even if reasonable). They’d much rather be told what you are doing to address their concerns – that is, what you are doing to address the facility problems they are pointing out.

Better yet, they want a chance to tell you what else you should do to address their concerns more fully … and then watch while you implement at least some of their proposals.

So when people raise a valid issue that you have been working on for years, emphasize that it’s a valid issue, not that they’re latecomers and you’ve got it under control. To the extent that other stakeholders have already pushed successfully for improvements, don’t just describe how good things are now; emphasize how much things have improved as a result of stakeholder pressure. Then list some further improvements you’ve been considering, and ask whether any of those seem appealing, and whether they have others to add to the list. And of course when stakeholders raise a valid issue you haven’t really paid enough attention to, say so, and say they’re right to push you to focus more on that issue.

You know your facility or your proposal is a work-in-progress. Make sure it looks like one – and make sure it’s clear that it’s not too late for the people in the room to have some impact.

I’m assuming here that you are in fact being responsive to your hostile stakeholders. If you’re not, there’s no point in trying to pretend that you are. That’s dishonest as well as ineffective. But my clients frequently make the opposite mistake. They have genuinely taken onboard some of their hostile stakeholders’ recommendations (or “demands,” as opponents prefer to say). They fully expect to take onboard some additional recommendations coming out of tonight’s meeting. But perhaps for reasons of ego, they pretend that everything they have done and everything they plan to do was in the cards from the outset – that Susan’s strong advocacy has had absolutely no impact.

When to be responsive and when to stonewall is a complicated decision that involves a lot more than just risk communication. But here’s a core risk communication principle: If you are being responsive, make sure it’s visible. Don’t look like you’re stonewalling when you’re not.

16. Memorize this hierarchy:
       listening → validating → responding → rebutting.

link up to indexPause to review.

When dealing with hostile stakeholders, listening while they vent comes first. That may take hours … or months. However long it takes, nothing else is worth doing until they’re ready to move on. And even after you have segued successfully to the validating stage, be prepared to back up and do more listening whenever the need arises.

Validating your stakeholders’ valid grievances comes second. Don’t skip too quickly to what you’re doing about those grievances, or even to what else you’re willing to do. This is especially the case with hostile stakeholders, who are often more deeply committed to hearing you concede that they’re right about the problem than they are to hearing you describe how you plan to solve it. Just as you shouldn’t segue from listening to validating until your stakeholders are insisting that it’s your turn to talk, don’t segue from validating to responding until they’re explicitly asking, “So what are you going to do about it?”

Responsiveness comes third. Document that you have been responsive (if you have) – that today’s facility (or proposal) is way different from what you started with, thanks to a lot of stakeholder consultation. And make it clear that the period of consultation is far from over; there’s still time for them to make their mark. If you haven’t been so responsive in years past, or if the current controversy is over something your stakeholders are just finding out about, apologize for not including them sooner, and promise to take time to consider the issues they’re raising in the months ahead. As you talk about your responsiveness, don’t forget to keep validating their grievances as well … and keep listening.

Rebuttal comes last. But it has to come eventually – along with plenty of ongoing listening, validating, and responding. “Some people have said they were worried that the new tailings impoundment would be an eyesore. That’s a sensible concern, and in fact the original plan would have been something of an eyesore. Some of your neighbors complained about that last October, and we had to change it. Here are the architect’s plans as they stand today, showing the sightlines. It’s going to be invisible from people’s houses, from the road, from everyplace offsite except the roofs of these three office buildings downtown.”

17. Don’t bring a claque.

link up to indexTheaters and opera houses used to hire professional applauders – collectively called the “claque” – to show up for performances and set a positive tone. Politicians still do.

But your number one goal for a hostile meeting is to demonstrate your willingness to listen, learn, and respond. It may feel like it will help to have a few people in the room who are on your side. But strong supporters are likelier to be a problem than an asset. They’ll rebut your stakeholders’ crap too soon and too aggressively – and may try to “rebut” your stakeholders’ valid grievances as well. And they won’t be at all happy with your performance, which they will see as mealy-mouthed and overly responsive. Better to go it alone.

If you have a chance to influence the guest list, choose a reluctant and partial supporter over an excessively enthusiastic one. The ideal “endorsement” for a hostile meeting sounds something like this: “I don’t trust these guys either, and I started out just as convinced as many of you are tonight that we didn’t want their facility in our town. But they listened to our concerns and improved their plan. They added more layers of protection, and even some benefits. Now, I don’t know, maybe it’s even a good thing for the town.”

There are other sorts of meetings when it may be appropriate – even essential – to round up as many enthusiastic supporters as you can. But a pitched battle between strong supporters of a potentially risky enterprise and strong opponents of that enterprise intrinsically favors the opposition. If some people think it’ll kill us all and some people think it’ll be fine, people who aren’t sure will tend to favor the conservative, risk-averse side of the controversy. Your goal, therefore, isn’t usually to outvote or outshout your opponents. Rather, your goal is to convince the undecideds that you have taken your opponents’ criticisms to heart (to the extent that you actually have), and that your enterprise is now a lot less risky than it might otherwise have been.

That’s especially the case at a meeting hosted by your opponents and attended mostly by them and their best prospects. See such a meeting as a chance to demonstrate your responsiveness to your opponents’ concerns, not as a chance to unmask those concerns as illusory. And don’t salt the meeting with supporters who will want you to do the unmasking thing.

18. Don’t demand that people trust you. In fact, concede explicitly that they’re not about to trust you.

link up to indexEven stakeholders who are only worried, not hostile, will probably be reluctant to take your word for things. Anything you say about the safety of your own facility has to be taken with a grain of salt. For hostile stakeholders, trusting you is out of the question.

Say so. “Of course nobody here tonight is going to assume something is true just because I say so. You’ll naturally need proof.”

And then provide the proof. Better yet, refer people to third parties who aren’t your natural allies, and let them provide the proof. “Here are some activist websites that you can check out to see what they say about these chemicals.” “Here’s a list of the members of our Community Advisory Group that has been pushing us to respond to neighborhood concerns.” “Councilman Smith was a strong opponent who has slowly moved in the direction of neutrality and maybe even support. You might want to ask him why.”

19. Think about guarantees.

link up to indexWhen people are reasonably but mistakenly worried that X might happen, and you are confident that it won’t, why not guarantee that it won’t? Write a contract with a stipulated penalty – money damages that go automatically to your stakeholders if you turn out wrong. That may not convince opponents that you’re right, but it will go a long way toward convincing them that you’re sincere.

If you think your neighbors’ property value worries are baseless, for example, the conventional response is to tell them so: “We don’t think our proposed expansion will hurt your property values. It’s a brownfields site that’s now lying fallow, a community eyesore. The expansion will mean a year or so of construction hassles for our neighbors, but once that’s over the greenbelt around the plant should be a big improvement over the way things look now. And of course the new ratable should help keep property taxes low.”

That’s good as far as it goes. But consider putting your money where your mouth is: “Just in case we’re wrong, we’re happy to work out a Property Value Protection Program. If you want to sell your property and can’t get what an appraiser says it would have brought if not for our expansion, we will either pay the difference or buy it ourselves at what would have been the fair market value … and then we’ll resell it – we’re betting for more than we paid for it – when the expansion is done.”

20. Don’t focus on benefits when talking to people who are upset about possible risks.

link up to indexRisk/benefit tradeoffs are a natural way to think about almost any risk controversy: On balance, do the benefits justify the risks? Of course it matters who’s getting the benefits and who’s enduring the risks. From cell phone towers to hazardous waste facilities, a lot of risk controversies have a rational NIMBY perspective at their root. Even if I agree that your facility’s benefits outweigh its risks overall, the risk/benefit ratio for me will be a whole lot better if I can force you to move it into someone else’s back yard instead of mine.

That’s why defenders of controversial existing facilities and proponents of controversial proposed facilities understand that they may need to offer local benefits: “If you accept it here, this is what we can do for you….” Or, even more commonly: “Let’s take a look at the benefits our company has brought to your town: jobs, taxes, philanthropy….”

But when people are outraged about the risk side of the risk/benefit balance sheet, they’re likely to get all the more outraged by any mention of benefits. For them it’s offensive. “How dare you talk about benefits! That’s nothing but a bribe! My children’s health is not for sale!”

So when you’re addressing a hostile audience, don’t raise the topic of benefits – current or possible – until your stakeholders do. And even if they raise it, consider objecting: “It would be obscene for me to talk about jobs or tax abatements when there are people here tonight who are worried that our plant could be giving their children cancer.”

If you are successful in mitigating your stakeholders’ outrage, eventually they will want to talk turkey. Even then, the discussion about risk and risk abatement will come first: How dangerous are you, and what are you willing to do to become less dangerous? Only after people are convinced that the risks aren’t so great that no conceivable benefits package could possibly compensate, will they be interested in discussing an appropriate benefits package to compensate for the remaining risks (and other downsides, such as traffic, noise, and hassle).

In short, benefits negotiations are part of the endgame in most risk controversies. You can’t skip that step, but you can’t skip to it either.

21. Don’t imply falsely that your opponents are powerless.

link up to indexMaybe your factory is one of the biggest employers and taxpayers in town. Maybe your emissions already meet all state and federal standards. Maybe the skids are greased for quick regulatory approval of your ambitious proposed facility or your not-so-ambitious proposed cleanup.

If it’s the simple truth that your opponents are powerless, you’re right to tell them so … though doing the job tactfully is a challenge.

But if your opponents were really as powerless as that, you probably wouldn’t be working so hard to address their concerns in the first place. Regulatory agencies have little difficulty finding a suitable rationale for changing their minds when they have powerful reasons to want to do so – and an angry community is a powerful reason. Standards can ratchet up fast, even for one of the biggest employers and taxpayers in town. A “done deal” can unravel virtually overnight if local opposition captures the approving attention of the governor, the legislature, the media, and the ENGOs. Not to mention the possibility of successful litigation.

And even when opponents lack the power to get what they want out of you, they may well have the power to damage your reputation.

Moreover, opponents don’t necessarily give up when they feel that opposition is futile. They may get more reckless instead, their recklessness fueled by outrage … and unmitigated by strategic caution. That may be okay with you if they’re really powerless. But the worst of all possible opponents is an opponent who feels powerless but isn’t, whose temper tantrums are all too likely to upset your applecart.

So be candid: “Even though everything we’re doing is within our permit requirements, we know a facility that has problems with its neighbors is likely to end up having problems with its regulators too. We would much rather work to address your concerns than try to hang onto our good reputation while you’re fighting us tooth and nail. That’s why we’re here tonight, looking for ways to address your concerns.”

If necessary, go back and reread #3. Remember to act small, and to acknowledge that your stakeholders have power.

22. Work slowly toward clarity about your opponents’ three options: accept, improve, or fight.

link up to indexAs I said back in #5, even a hostile meeting has some participants who are more worried than hostile. They’re looking for evidence that what you’re doing (or proposing) isn’t all that dangerous, that others are successfully negotiating a good deal for the town, and that they can afford to accept you as you are and get on with their lives. One of your goals for this meeting, and for every meeting, is to help worried stakeholders get less worried, so they can give themselves permission to get uninvolved.

But for many at tonight’s meeting, accepting what you’re doing isn’t an option. That leaves two other options: They can work to improve what you’re doing, or they can fight to stop what you’re doing.

The choice, obviously, is up to them, not you. And both choices are legitimate. You should never say anything that implies otherwise. But you do want to encourage them to pick the “improve” option over the “fight” option. One of the main reasons why it’s so important to keep being visibly responsive to the issues stakeholder are raising is to make “improve” look more attractive and “fight” look less necessary. “There are a lot of details we haven’t worked out yet – and therefore a lot of opportunities for further input. There is room in our budget to respond to at least some of your concerns.”

That’s the carrot. Here’s the stick: “That’s if you decide to work with us on ways to improve our operations. But our budget for addressing stakeholders’ concerns is also our budget for defeating opponents. Of course you have every right to decide to fight to shut down our facility instead of working to improve it. If you do that, we’ll try to defend it. If you win, we’re out of here. But if we win, the money we will have spent defeating you won’t be available anymore to address your concerns.”

Don’t be in a hurry to wield the stick. Said too early and too aggressively, it can easily trigger more outrage than pragmatism. But little by little your stakeholders need to understand their key choice: They can decide to live with what you’re doing and get back to their lives, or they can work to improve what you’re doing by pushing you to address their concerns, or they can go for broke and fight to stop you altogether. What they can’t do is fight to stop you, lose, and still expect you to be just as responsive as you are tonight.

Copyright © 2010 by Peter M. Sandman

For more on outrage management:    link to Outrage Management index
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