Actively Engaging with Communities to Develop America’s Energy Infrastructure

January 25, 2024

Access to safe roads, clean water, and reliable power are just some of the fundamental resources that every American deserves. But as our news headlines frequently highlight, critical infrastructure projects that have the promise of delivering these resources to more Americans can be hindered, sometimes delayed and even cancelled, in the absence of effective community engagement and communications strategies.

How do companies and governments manage this risk, while also providing markets the confidence necessary to invest? In the newest age of “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) and an increased focus on Environmental Justice (EJ), meaningful community engagement must be a top priority for executives charged with strategic planning for infrastructure development.

For more than a century, the benefits analysis behind infrastructure development served as the cornerstone for obtaining the permits that lead to construction. In short, prove you are serving the greater good. However, the pendulum has swiftly swung in recent years to more thoroughly account for the concerns of communities who are impacted by the project. To better prepare and address this, we must understand how we’ve gotten to this juncture.

While it may seem like the concept of EJ has gained popularity in recent years, the coordinated fight for equitable enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies dates to at least the early 1980’s, with roots in local battles dating back much further. The movement gained steam in the 1990’s through, among other efforts, President George H. Bush’s founding of the Environmental Equity Working Group in 1992, and President Bill Clinton’s issuance of Executive Order 12898, directing the U.S. Government to make effective EJ programming part of the federal decision-making process.

In the decades that followed, EJ, as well as NIMBY movements, have firmly implanted into the everyday vernacular of American culture. These efforts have toppled projects that were conceptualized to expand access for more Americans to energy resources, transportation solutions, or emissions reducing technologies. Even for the projects that do come to fruition, the permitting and construction delays cost investors and consumers billions.

So, back to our original question: How can we meet growing societal demands and do so in a way that meets an ever-growing expectation for greater environmental and social responsibility?

At LSG, we have decades of experience in this space, supporting clients every day to navigate this narrow tightrope. Like communities, no two projects are the same, but here are some of the key points we consider when building our strategy:

  1. Engage Early: It may seem easy to hold off on beginning two-way communication with stakeholders until after all the details are ironed out, but early engagement is critical to proving yourself as genuine and well-intentioned. Many companies stumble early by thinking they need all the answers before going public, but this often leads to a compressed timeline for engagement and toxic distrust with local audiences – distrust that increases cost and timelines on the backend.
  2. Listen: You must be willing to actively respond to feedback you’re receiving on multiple fronts. LSG’s Strategic Insights team will provide you the tools to determine your best messengers and sharpen your messaging, and you must then be fervently willing to meet with elected leaders, community groups, concerned citizens, and others, and adjust your narrative according to the feedback you receive. Regular polling and message testing should always follow to foster ongoing message refinement, while also providing quantitative metrics to track your progress.
  3. Commit for the long-term: Stakeholders, and your project’s regulators, expect far more than a one-off community meeting or town hall to educate them on your efforts and provide feedback. You must be prepared to invest in company representatives who live and work in the region and are able to engage with impacted communities daily. Additionally, you must invest in digital tools that provide 24-7 listening and rapid response capabilities. Our Stakeholder Engagement and Community Marketing teams provide companies the resources to make this all happen. 

The solutions to effectively addressing infrastructure permitting challenges aren’t simple, but through strategic planning and meaningful community engagement we can better mitigate risk and develop projects that benefit all involved.

Please contact Scott Castleman if you are interested in learning more on how LSG can be your partner in developing and executing effective community engagement campaigns.