The ability to establish relationships and trust at City Hall and within affected neighborhoods will lead to success
By Scott Starkey
“If you do one thing, do a better job with communications and outreach.”
This was the advice offered by numerous city council members at a recent symposium on the entitlement process. Communications technology — notably the rise of social media — has empowered development opponents, enabling them to quickly organize and pack city council meetings. In the process of securing YES votes for 90 percent of our land-use campaigns across California, Starkey Communications has successfully created and implemented a variety of strategies that have proven effective in an array of contentious projects.
Our process focuses on how people process information, form opinions, and then make decisions regarding potentially controversial ideas or proposals. Say, like the new project you have planned. Our process involves four major imperatives:
Imperative #1: Conduct Research
and Prepare a Strategic Plan: You need to begin by gaining insight and perspective. That means performing the research necessary to understand the political and community environment, identify the major players and recognize the salient issues. Such research will also help you determine how best to position your project.
There are a variety of research tactics that can help you obtain such insights, ranging from focus group discussions and public-opinion polling to interviews with community leaders and local residents.
Information gleaned from this research will serve as the foundation for a winning “narrative” and a solid strategic communications plan. A good strategic plan will include the following steps of: Tell Your Story ’ Create Relationships ’ and Activate Advocates.
Imperative #2: Tell Your Story: Building awareness of your team’s qualifications and how your project benefits the community is fundamental. You can’t create support until people understand what you are trying to do and how it will affect them. Key actions to take: instead of relying on the news media to tell your story, become the trusted source for information about your project. Use a variety of communication tools – mailers, social media, a website, and in-person meetings with influential members of the community; communicate directly with community leaders so they hear your story unfiltered, and encourage them to share that story with others; be accessible and welcome sincere questions, comments, and concerns.
Imperative #3: Establish Relationships
and Trust in the Community: Much of our success has been based on the ability to establish relationships and trust at City Hall and within affected neighborhoods. It is easier to build such relationships when you engage with the community and invite residents to participate in the planning process.
Strategies to engage the community and build relationships include: allow neighbors to participate early in the design process. Not only are site plans frequently improved as a result of resident feedback, but you’ll also earn their respect (and often their support); create a committee to serve as a focal point for your outreach; be visible around town. Get involved in local organizations. Be a regular sponsor of community events. Demonstrate that you care.
Imperative #4: Activate Advocates: Ideally, by mid-campaign your team will have established relationships and gained support from neighbors, business groups, service clubs, property rights advocates, and others. Such support can make the difference between your project’s success or failure.
Some steps to mobilize supporters: Request testimonials that can be used in marketing materials; ask supporters to engage in social media discussions about the project; assemble a diverse group of supporters and encourage them to collaborate, form a coalition, and launch a website. There is strength in numbers!
This progression—from research to the identification and recruitment of local advocates—will allow you to soften opposition, separate opponents from the process, galvanize your supporters and motivate them to show up in force at City Hall.
How It Works: To support a large mixed-use project in Southern California being planned by Brookfield Residential, Starkey Communications began with a “listening tour” involving key neighbors and other important stakeholders.
The information gleaned from this early outreach led to the formation of an advisory committee composed of individuals representing a cross-section of the community. This outreach also provided the necessary input for design processes and enabled the team to build strong relationships with community leaders.
As public hearings approached and opposition emerged (as it virtually always does), those who participated in our outreach program formed a coalition that eventually grew to comprise 200 community leaders. The coalition’s views were promoted through social media, a website the coalition created, and at community rallies.
More than 50 supporters spoke in favor of the plan during public hearings. City Council members, who commended the team for its comprehensive outreach process, voted unanimously to approve the project.
To conclude: Do your research. Understand the political environment, the relevant issues, and the influential community members. Tell your story. Be inclusive. And activate those supporters! Your investors — and even the City Council members – will appreciate it!
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