Constructing new energy infrastructure, such as pipelines, electricity transmission lines or wind turbines, is not an easy or inexpensive endeavor. But despite the millions to billions of dollars and years spent evaluating, siting and planning an infrastructure project, it can all go sideways in a heartbeat without effective and sustained community engagement and outreach.
Community relations is so vital to the success of infrastructure projects that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil, has issued a guide of best practices for stakeholder outreach.
According to the guide, a formal company program for stakeholder outreach, managed by a company representative who is working collaboratively with other project development team managers from the onset of project development, greatly increases the chances that a project will proceed in a timely, efficient and credible manner.
Here are the essentials for a strategic community relations plan to help energy companies reduce resistance and build goodwill and support for infrastructure projects.
Deploy Community Relations Professionals
Community outreach should not be an afterthought or task added to a project manager's list of responsibilities. To successfully engage the community and build goodwill for your project, you need trained community relations professionals on the ground to develop strong relationships and credibility with the landowners, residents, businesses and local officials within the project footprint.
Engage and Educate Early
The processes involved in energy transmission, generation and distribution are often a mystery to your average Joe and Jane, so educating them early about the project - what is being constructed, why it's needed and how it benefits the community, the region or the nation - is imperative. Many energy companies host open houses or meetings for community stakeholders so that they can learn more about the project and discuss questions and concerns with company representatives.
Keep Them Informed
Energy infrastructure projects are often years in the making. Keeping landowners and other stakeholders updated on the latest project developments and activities, while highlighting aspects of a company's culture, e.g., commitment to safety, charitable giving, etc., keeps them in the loop and helps build preparedness for when construction begins.
Be Available and Responsive
If community members have a question or concern, make sure you have the staff and process in place to be ready to respond. Failure to be available and responsive could result in a disgruntled landowner, resident or local official who could tarnish the project and the company with bad word of mouth. A slow or no response could also cost you an opportunity to address misinformation or rumors.
Talk about the Benefits
Energy infrastructure projects can often mean jobs and positive economic impact for a community, particularly rural communities with less diverse economic opportunities. Highlighting the amount of new tax revenue generated from a project or the number of jobs it will create can help win support throughout the community.
Infrastructure projects can be demanding on communities - construction, traffic, noise - learning about the community's needs and providing support in the way of donations and volunteerism demonstrates that a company is committed to being a good neighbor and working with, not against, the community.