Public meetings are rarely love-fests. This can be especially true for environmental topics. They press a lot of emotional buttons: about property values, potential illness, safety, public trust, and sometimes even racial discrimination.
No one’s perfect. Anyone can make an inappropriate comment or ineffectively deliver a sensitive message.
Technical information is particularly rife for misunderstandings that cause unnecessary conflict. After sitting through many public meetings with municipal clients, we’ve gathered a few tips on avoiding common pitfalls.
1. Prepare ahead of time. Pre-planning is particularly helpful when technical experts are on the docket. In addition to improving the meeting at hand, thinking ahead builds trust for future meetings.
2. Stay on topic to avoid raising unnecessary concerns. Environmental studies can be very specific; for example, investigating the concentration of certain chemicals in the soil but not addressing their source. An expert might be tempted to comment on the source, opening the door to a sensitive topic you’re not prepared to discuss. Meet with your experts before the meeting to cover what topics they should stick to.
3. Experts unfamiliar with the specifics of the location. Experts who haven’t seen the proposed project site create the perception that the issue isn’t important to the expert or that they’re just rubber-stamping the report. Neither builds public trust. Make sure your technical experts have at least visited the site so their statements have credibility.
4. Assume legal representatives will be in the audience. Always assume a lawyer representing the public or just a concerned citizen is present. Stick to the facts as presented and backed up by reports and studies. Avoid conjecture, guaranteeing anything, or over-promising. Make sure ahead of time that permission or a release was received to go on personal property to collect samples, and that proper advance notice of the meeting was provided.
5. Admit a mistake upfront to build trust. When federal guidelines are not appropriate, substituting site-specific factors is often more accurate. If someone points out a discrepancy, don’t argue that the federal requirement isn’t appropriate in this particular case. Just say it’s an oversight and that the study will be re-run.