Millions of dollars of investment capital ride on it. Thousands of hours of work are affected by it. Hundreds of anxious homeowners attend it, and elected officials are influenced by it. The “it” is the town hall meeting.

Town hall meetings in the context of controversial NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) projects can often signal the kiss of death for many projects. In my experience, nine out of 10 town hall meetings turn into “Jerry Springer” episodes where environmentalists and vocal minorities hijack the venue, torpedo presentations, and generate negative publicity.

This scenario repeats itself thousands of times every year across the country, leaving elected officials scrambling for political cover and corporate developers going into crisis mode.

If so many town hall meetings are high-risk, low-return forums that empower vocal opponents, then why do so many applicants roll the dice and risk their multi-million dollar projects? There are two reasons why town hall meetings are so frequent and the rate of failure so high.

First, the majority of public outreach efforts are launched by announcing a town hall meeting. Second, elected officials direct the applicant to host a town hall meeting, which enables the official to tell activists that they took action.

An elected official’s request that you present your project at a town hall meeting is often code for “You have my private support, but I need more political cover before I support the project publicly.” The scenario is a symptom of ineffective outreach that hasn’t successfully secured social equity for the project.

Blindsided
A few years ago, a big box developer asked me to evaluate a town hall meeting for one of their controversial projects in Florida. The prospective site required a zoning change and the application was on schedule, but self-appointed environmentalists blindsided the project at a planning and zoning board hearing.

The site contained wetlands and the environmentalists claimed storm water runoff would pollute them. The NIMBY tactics caused the planning and zoning board to table its vote. The next day, the mayor, who supported the project, called to demand a town hall meeting. The mayor’s call came after she had received 15 emails at city hall pressing her to vote against the project.

The wetlands lay near a subdivision, and residents treated the habitat as their personal dump. The developer planned to rehab the wetlands and create a storm water pond that neighbors could enjoy as green space. So they had reason to believe the town hall would be productive and participatory.

More than 100 residents attended the town hall meeting that night. The audience appeared evenly divided about the plans.

The project manager began his overview of the site plan, the remediation of the wetlands and the green space concession. He was doing well, but all that changed when a local environmentalist, who was president of an adjacent subdivision, stood up and hijacked the rest of the meeting.

She waved a “Save Our Wetlands” petition, claiming she had signatures of hundreds of neighbors who opposed the project. On the other side of the auditorium, another homeowner stood up and acknowledged that his homeowners association (HOA) was also concerned about pollution, traffic congestion, increased crime and reduced property values. The second homeowner, who didn’t know the first, committed his HOA’s support to the petition.

The town hall meeting introduced two factions that forged an alliance. Nearly every audience member signed the petition, and local officials scrambled for cover.

It was an election year, so the NIMBY tactics eventually killed the project, which would have meant hundreds of millions of dollars of new revenue for the company.

Tips for Success

Corporate developers can avoid such pitfalls of town hall meetings by following three tips.

Tip One: The public outreach campaign must have a communications strategy that politically protects your path. And the strategy should have a PLAN — social diligence comprised of Political, Location, Allies, and NIMBY elements — that affects the approval process. The big box retailer in the case above didn’t know the environmentalist was exploiting their project to heighten her profile to run for mayor. Her campaign was launched the night of the town hall meeting. Three months later, she defeated the mayor who supported the project.

Tip Two: Schedule presentations before such groups as Rotary, Kiwanis, and the Board of Realtors. The majority of local opinion leaders are active in these groups and the sessions qualify as public participation. These venues are receptive to development ideas and vocal special interests are unable to crash the gatherings. I’ve had several activists attempt to crash the gates, in some cases with news crews, and it always backfired on them.

Tip Three: Build a coalition of surrogates advocating the merits of your sustainable project. By following the first two tips, you may be able to avoid town hall meetings.

No doubt, there are successful town hall meetings, but in today’s economy, corporate leaders demand more continuity, control and certainty over their investments. Investors and developers shouldn’t risk their investments by rolling the dice at town hall meetings.

If you downgrade the relevance of town hall meetings and follow these tips, then you will increase the odds of getting more project approvals in less time, at a significant savings.

Patrick Slevin is senior vice president of Hill & Knowlton, an international communications consultancy firm. He can be reached at Patrick.Slevin@HillandKnowlton.com.