The Significance of First Impressions

The first few weeks of community outreach are the most important of the campaign

By Scott Starkey

Humans have an obsessive desire to remain consistent with initial opinions they have formed. This is the conclusion of Dr. Robert Cialdini, a renowned phycologist and researcher on the topic of persuasion.

This “theory of consistency” can work for, or against, a developer conducting community outreach for a new project.

Neighbors who form a positive first impression will often choose to engage in the planning process and often support the outcome. While those with a negative first impression will likely disengage and fight any new project.

Early opposition is like being down 5 to 0 in the first inning of a baseball game. The odds are stacked against the applicant before the game began.
Successful developers know this, and spend the time ensuring they make a positive first impression.

As the industry thinks about the New Year, here are community outreach strategies to effectively launch your entitlement campaign.

Go Slow To Go Fast With Community Outreach
Initial contact with stakeholders—especially neighbors—should follow the pattern you’d have with any new relationship: share information, discuss likes and dislikes, and identify common ground.
This approach allows neighbors to learn more about the developer, the property, and have a chance to give input. Think of it has their “due-diligence” phase.

Here are three discussion topics to cover during initial contact with neighbors:

1. Take time to describe development team’s qualifications and the community engagement process that will be followed. Create confidence in your ability, skill and process.

2. Describe why a project is being considered at the location, the land use designations for the site, and pros and cons of different development types. This is basic information and allows a
developer to become a trusted source of information as the neighbors get up to speed.

3. Ask questions and ask for opinions. (Everyone likes to be asked for their opinion!) Inquire about the current use of the property and potential changes. Ask for opinions about previously proposed projects in the area. Probe about how change at the location would be perceived.

How to start the dialog? It can be as simple as a letter to neighbors with background on your company, the property, and an overview of the outreach process. Comments or questions should be requested via a postage-paid reply card and attendance at scheduled community meetings.

At the conclusion of this process, which can be done in about 45-days, a developer will have a clear understanding of the community environment and established important new relationships.
One caution: Avoid starting discussions with neighbors by “selling” your site plan and asking for feedback. 1. Site plans should not be finalized without neighborhood feedback. 2. Neighbors typically focus on what they find objectionable in a site plan, creating a negative first impression. Taking shortcuts can force neighbors into a position of opposition.

A Case Study: How to Go Slow to Go Fast
A previous developer recently walked away from a five-acre church site embedded in an established neighborhood. Neighbors’ fears over the future of the property were at a fever pitch.
Community relations was needed to deescalate emotions. This was essential to have any chance at having meaningful dialog with the neighbors about our client’s new proposal.

The initial outreach featured two simple messages for the community: 1. We want to meet you. 2. We want to learn your thoughts about the future of this property. The messages were shared via a door-to-door program, a mailer and a community meeting.

Pages of notes were taken and key themes emerged. As it turned out the residents had largely come to understand a church was no longer viable at the site. Also, there were some clear requests regarding setbacks and community benefits (which could be accommodated). Lastly, much of the opposition to the previous plan was due to a general mistrust of the development process and a feeling of being disenfranchised.

These perspectives formed the foundation for key messages and a successful entitlement campaign, which resulted in project approvals with community support.
In closing: The first few weeks of community outreach are the most important of the campaign. Use this time to create momentum that will lead to project approval.

Scott Starkey is a veteran public affairs and communications consultant with more than 15 years of experience building support for client initiatives. He may be reached at scott@starkeycommunications.com.