Making Objective, Logical, Fact-Based Arguments Is the Best Way To Counter The Mixed Messages Of NIMBY Groups.
By Thomas J. Roach
With the advent of social media, NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups have been given several unrestricted forums for opposing business initiatives.
Previously, community groups typically designated a spokesperson who addressed the City Council meeting or was interviewed by reporters. The spokesperson for the group was paired off against the spokesperson for the quarry or the shopping center in a public debate.
Often the business in question had an edge in the contest because it was able to hire a communication professional to represent its interests while the neighborhood group had to rely on someone with little understanding of mediation processes and argumentation.
Now it seems like the business spokesperson is at a disadvantage. NIMBY groups can author email, Facebook and Twitter messages to a network of personal contacts in the community. However, while the number of voices and messages coming from the community group may seem overwhelming, the lack of coordination of these messages may put them at a disadvantage.
While we value things like objectivity, logic and evidence, the main factor in all public discourse is trust. Arguments can be persuasive by themselves, but the main advantage to an objective, logical, fact-based argument is that it tells us the speaker can be trusted. Intuitively we all understand that absolute proof is unobtainable, and when all the arguments are made, we usually side with the advocate we trust.
The paradigm of public debate then is a test of trustworthiness; the test of logic is subordinate. This suggests a methodology for dealing with controversy.
- First, never make a statement that isn’t true and defensible.
- Second, immediately respond when accused of being dishonest.
- And third, call attention to untrue statements from your opposition.
A single spokesperson can easily manage integrity-based public advocacy. If you had three safety violations in the last year, list them and be prepared to provide details. If the quarry expansion will create 10 jobs, don’t promise 20. The numbers might not sound impressive, but they are defensible, and they will build trust.
Community groups are unable to exercise message control. There may be a spokesperson who makes reasonable arguments, but there could be countless others who post false claims that blasting broke someone’s windows and cracked the foundations of their houses. If a hundred accusations show up online, consider them as a hundred opportunities to discredit opponents.
Select and Research
One possible approach might be to select and research the charges that you can easily and clearly prove to be false or ungrounded and find a public forum in which to address them. The best public forum is not a meeting with the NIMBY group; there is no point trying to get people who made exaggerated claims to admit they are wrong.
It needs to be with the audience that is judging the debate – the other members of the community who are not threatened and might see some advantage to the business proposal. This could be a town hall meeting, an appearance before a board or a media conference.
If charges have been made against your company’s integrity, address those first. Admit to the true charges and refute the false. Then list the unfounded claims made by the NIMBY group and refute them. Conclude by modestly restating the company position on the issue and express a willingness to work with the community.
Of course, if the community group has a legitimate objection to the company position, then acknowledge it and change plans. Every organization’s top priority should be managing its reputation.
Exploiting small communities will only result in a reputation as a threat to public welfare and lead to a backlash in the form of restrictive industry legislation. There is no point winning the battles and losing the war.