The task is to win the support of politicians and communities to secure planning approval and fend off professionally-mobilised lobbying by green groups and other campaigners. But… anti-fracking activists put the sleepy Sussex village of Balcombe on prime-time television. The noise caused led to exploratory drilling by oil group Cuadrilla being disrupted.
So how do in-house and agency communicators set about winning the hearts and minds of communities that may face major upheaval…? How do they go about changing public opinion, countering organised opposition? And how can they overcome perceived or genuine bias in the media on the subject?
Paul Chapman, interim director of communications for HS2, says: ‘The first thing that has to be understood is how the landscape for major infrastructure projects has changed.
‘The rules governing consultation processes nowadays mean the amount of information that’s viewed as material and has to be disclosed by the applicant has increased greatly, and is markedly different to what has to be disclosed by opponents of a project.
‘The problem is that the applicant can end up disclosing information that can be used against it by opponents who don’t have to do the same. It makes everything much more difficult. You’re effectively always starting one step behind and if you’re not careful you end up chasing that rather than explaining what the benefits of the project would be.’
Ben Copithorne, a director of Sirius’s corporate communications agency Camargue… adds that a key strategy is to try to personalise communications.
He says that having a vocal, likeable, considerate and accessible face to articulate arguments, mitigate criticism and explain benefits can be a huge boon when faced with clever David versus Goliath positioning that represents a particular resident, for example, as a powerless pawn fighting against a mighty corporation.
Elsewhere in UK infrastructure PR, most communicators cite a three-pronged strategy of engagement, rebuttal of false or exaggerated criticism and communication of the economic benefits to the UK.
Ann-Marie Wilkinson is head of communications at IGas Energy… says that… IGas is able to defray some of the concerns by taking politicians, journalists and residents to see existing sites. The company also holds public meetings, has delivered leaflets to 1,600 homes and liaises with community groups and varied local interests. Wilkinson insists no effort is being spared, even though the IGas communications office consists of only herself and a half-time marketeer. ‘Engagement is vital for [two new applications] but we also need it as part of our social licence to operate from our communities.’
Edmunds agrees. ‘In infrastructure projects everyone is always terribly concerned about the security inside the fence,’ he says. ‘But you have to go outside the fence when communicating and really engage with the areas you are impacting.’
Rebuttal, however, can seem like a losing battle, according to Jason Nisse… [who] says the task involves a recognition that communicators will, to some extent, always be on the back foot… But once something is given a name like fracking, it gains redolence and becomes part of common parlance. However fast and smart we are, we usually start one-nil down… There’s a lot of disinformation and misinformation out there and it is irritating that we don’t always get a right of reply.
‘If we say something, a media outlet may well go to the green campaigner for a balancing comment but it doesn’t always happen the other way around. The Greens are coming from one side of the fence. It’s like asking a fan from the North Bank at Arsenal to give a balanced view about Spurs. A lot of the time, it’s not going to happen… critical channels such as the BBC and The Guardian are balanced by strong support for fracking by the likes of The Daily Mail.
Another key element, say communicators, is getting out the message about the benefits… in terms of the advantages they bring to the UK as a whole. For fracking, this can tap into not only concerns about job opportunities in the North-West but wider national worries about security of energy supply as North Sea gas dwindles.
Edmunds explains: ‘The biggest focus is to provide information because you cannot allow an information vacuum. You have to be proactive and make sure that everyone understands.’
Chapman at HS2 agrees. ‘If there’s an information vacuum, people will just make things up,’ he says. ‘You definitely don’t want that.’
Communicating a major infrastructure project has just got even harder.