In the age of social media, a vocal public can derail developments at planning stage. Stephen Cousins looks at the pitfalls, and how to weather a media storm.
When the Davies Airports Commission published its report in July, recommending a £18.6bn third runway at London’s Heathrow, there was a sense that the decision was out of sync with public sentiment. The media was full of reports on the air quality and noise impacts, and the fact the project would require the demolition of at least 783 homes. Surely these factors outweighed any benefits?
Rival Gatwick, meanwhile, was a serious contender, very much in the running. It was almost impossible to take a tube journey without seeing posters for its marketing campaign, Gatwick Obviously, and 2014 was reported as the busiest year in the airport’s history.
Yet once the Davies report landed, Heathrow’s PR campaign kick-started. Positive stories appeared linking the third runway to the creation of a “Heathrow garden city” – seemingly to displace concerns about the loss of existing homes. And Heathrow took a lesson from High Speed 2 by announcing plans to extend its skills academy. Whether all this has worked will be judged when prime minister David Cameron makes his final decision on the project later this year.
The Heathrow debate highlights how PR, marketing campaigns and efforts to engage with the public through traditional and social media can succeed, or fail, at creating an impression of support for a controversial project. Community consultation on proposals has long been a feature of the planning process but other media channels are enabling the public to get involved on a much larger scale and more easily.
For project sponsors and developers, the ability to influence the media narrative, disseminate project information and speak to communities on a one-to-one level is now critical to create the right conditions for local authority planning committees to give the go-ahead.
"We are in an era of small majorities, and there are fewer wards and constituencies where politicians can ignore public opinion."
Phil Kennedy, FTI
As managing director of PR consultant ING Leanne Tritton says: “Developers must think clearly about their product early on so they don’t get caught out. It’s important not to think you can simply rely on planning laws to get what you want. Try to understand the local community’s concerns and address them. If you don’t do any of that work, you will end up as easy pickings for a campaign backed by the likes of Russell Brand.”
At the same time, the increased expectation of “transparency” in public life means that local authorities, the key decision makers for most construction projects, are having to work harder to be seen to uphold residents’ democratic rights to be involved in major decisions.
Phil Kennedy, senior director at business advisory firm FTI Consulting explains: “We are in an era of small majorities, and there are fewer wards and constituencies where politicians can ignore public opinion. If there is a strong groundswell of public opinion against a proposal, it has a very good chance of influencing the decision made, at a local level at least.”
Developers still use the traditional arsenal of tools to engage with and influence the public, from newspapers, radio and TV, to newsletters, face-to-face community meetings. One tool that has diminished, however, is signing up “opinion formers”: celebrities or starchitects who might once have influenced debates on the public realm.
With the democratisation of opinion brought about by the Internet and social media, pronouncements from on high carry less weight, with PR advisors commenting that people are now much more interested in what’s happening at grass roots and on the ground.
Accordingly, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest have become a key feature of many pre-planning battles. But while social media offers direct dialogue, PR advisers point out that is also enables misinformation about projects to travel very quickly, and helps campaigners on different scheme to pick up new tactics.
Examples of pre-planning battles fought out on social media last year include the Facebook campaign against the demolition of an undercroft skate park, part of the Southbank Centre’s proposed £120m redevelopment, which gathered more than 25,000 signatures.
Social media was also key to the success of the Save Smithfield Market campaign against a £160m redevelopment by Henderson Global Investors, which would have razed market buildings dating from the 1880s.
London’s Garden Bridge project is currently in the midst of a social media battleground: there are daily Twitter skirmishes between the Garden Bridge Trust and amenity groups opposing it. The project arguably lost an early PR advantage by failing to keep the public informed about the ballooning budget, leading to the impression that political and financial deals were being done behind closed doors.