Beware of Negative Attitudes
On some sensitive projects, the term (project) Public Relations (program) may conjure up a vague and self-serving sales pitch. The image of a smooth, fast-talking individual, replete with well-worn clichés, is not a desirable one and in that case the term sends the wrong message. Perhaps a better term is: "Public Participation Program".
Unfortunately, this too has negative connotations. For those on the project team, it may conjure up a perception of interference with project objectives, escalating costs and schedule delays. Nevertheless, whatever the activity may be called, the purpose is the same: to obtain people's understanding and positive, and active support.
Every project team should bear in mind that projects have a habit of becoming the target of negative criticism. Those with conflicting interests may circulate this negative information. Special interest groups may seek to have the project delayed, or canceled to preserve the status quo, or otherwise "held to ransom" to serve their own political ends. Like bees to the honey pot, the news media is much more attracted to controversy, because they find this more newsworthy than any official project press releases.
The cries of the critics often include:
- The technology is untried.
- Safety is at stake.
- The environment will be damaged.
- The community will incur additional indirect costs.
- Taxes will increase.
- Some group or other has not been considered or is hard done by.
There may well be individual hardship cases that will attract political and media attention. In the short term, construction may result in noise, dirt, trucking, road restrictions and congestion. If property has to be acquired, some people's homes, businesses, or lifestyles could be affected. For example, a shift in the balance of the economy in the area could affect real estate values so that some win and some lose.
All these require immediate and effective response, and the only effective response is that which is strictly factual. The project manager needs to foresee these issues, recognize them as part of the project responsibility, deal with them honestly and fairly, and deliver the message with complete sincerity. He or she should also keep in mind that the public that stands to gain from a public project is not necessarily the public that is most affected by it. Therefore, vocal minorities may create difficulties while the silent majorities sit on the sidelines, leaving others to resolve the issues.