Propelling Pennsylvania Wind Projects Forward through Grassroots Support

July 14, 2015 By Al Maiorino

Al Maiorino

Pennsylvania, with its many blustery ridge tops, is seen as a prime location for wind farms by wind companies themselves as well as advocates for solutions to climate change. Across Pennsylvania, the installation of wind farms aims to help meet a goal of state law that requires 18 percent of retail power to be generated by renewable and advanced energy sources to reduce the production of carbon emissions and other gases that contribute to climate concerns.

Despite the fact that wind farms provide environmental benefits, there is still a need to build public support for new projects both in Pennsylvania and beyond. Within the state, Black Creek Township residents have raised concerns over the implementation of 22 new turbines on the Buck Mountain raise. Given the firm resident opposition that initially met this proposal, it is a great accomplishment on the part of Pattern Development to have successfully achieved project approval. When representatives addressed the Schuylkill County Zoning Board back in 2009, they said the wind farm would not harm the character of the neighborhood, but opponents argued that the turbines could jeopardize threatened or endangered species — particularly the timber rattlesnake. Presently, the timber rattlesnake is currently listed as a candidate species, which means that it could achieve threated or endangered status. As a result, the Buck Mountain wind project had to successfully educate the community on the project’s benefits, while dispelling myths associated with environmental impacts in order for the proposal to continue moving throughout the approval process.

Grassroots activism has generally been directed at correcting problems, abuses and issues that a large number of people believe are not being addressed effectively. As such, grassroots outreach is an effective tool to help build public support for wind development and keep projects like Buck Mountain on track for timely approval. The American democratic system encourages such activism even if at times there are forces at work to discourage it, most notably those who do not want change or who see a specific change as a threat. Any wind strategy that depends on broad grassroots support for its success needs to be based on a sound understanding of how grassroots works and the tactics that are most effective to engage communities every step of the way.

Data Is Key

Managing a supporter database with detailed notes on individuals and their relation to a project can take up valuable and limited resources. However, it is a task of critical importance to any project. The database can contain all households in a community or just a target group of likely supporters. Either way, outreach should aim to educate households on the wind project and proceed to identify which households support, oppose or are undecided. Append telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, as well as valuable demographic information such as age, income and political party. Through targeted communication of messaging based on an individual’s predisposition for support, the outreach campaign will ultimately be structured like a political-style campaign if this database is kept up to date. Relationships are eventually built with many identified supporters, and this database allows for rapid communication and organized outreach with the advocacy group that will form.

Craft a Project Website

Creating a grassroots-oriented website on just the wind project at hand is vital to not only ensuring that the project has a presence online, but to also providing community members with access to supporting research about the project when needed. With a “call-to-action” page, supporters will always have access to information about getting involved. Create a sign-up form right on this page to grow the advocacy base and help build an e-mail list to append to the database. Quotes and endorsements from third-party validators as well as fact sheets and sample letters to officials can also be displayed to make this site an effective resource.

Telephone ID

While polling allows for an extrapolation of community sentiment, it can be expensive for wind companies. In terms of grassroots support, telephone identification is far less expensive, but it serves more as a straw poll in that actual individuals in the community are identified who support, oppose or remain undecided. Once members of your target audience have been introduced to the proposal through at least one method of education, give them a call with a short persuasive script to gauge individual level support.

Get Social Savvy!

Social media allows advocacy to reach new heights with constant information sharing and real-time updates. Post regularly to educate the online community about the benefits of your project in short sound bites for easy retention. Break down related research and scientific information relating to the industry to short tweets/posts or present this information as an infographic for visual representation. Digital relationships can be as important as those cultivated in person because the online community possesses a strong voice when engaged as a whole through a project-specific supporter group or hashtag.

Let the Narrative Do the Talking

With all the digital information social media users are confronted with each day at a rapid pace, content must be compelling to have an effect. Therefore, viewers are more apt to internalize messaging if it is presented in the form of a story they can relate to. An appeal to the emotions through the school children who will benefit from the revenue a wind project will bring, for example, is more apt to grab the attention of viewers than the millions of dollars of revenue promised by the company’s talking points. Real citizens can present their own narratives through social media to detail the reasons why their peers should join in to offer their support, too.

Advertise on Social Media

Paid advertising opportunities on social media can give you direct engagement with many in your target audiences to help advocacy and advertising budgets stretch further. Because advertisements on social media can be served within a particular geolocation or interest category, they attract attention by providing directly relevant information to the viewer. Optimization for page likes can assist with getting an online community’s presence started, or the ads can be optimized for click-throughs to direct traffic to the new project website. Google ads, while not on social media, offer another vehicle to serve content to web users searching relevant terms in the defined project geolocation.

Letters and Hearing Attendance

The end game for all education, outreach and identification should always be letters to the permitting authority and attendance at hearings for vocal support. To achieve these, invite supporters during telephone identification, on social media and through other vehicles to supporter meetings to get to know their interest level and provide resources that match their interest. By keeping in contact and using calls-to-action effectively, supporters will be willing to speak out on behalf of the proposal even in situations where residents in opposition may have a strong presence. The key is to begin building grassroots support from the moment a project is announced to cultivate the relationships that elicit narratives of support and help win project approval.

Al Maiorino started Public Strategy Group in 1996. He has developed and managed multiple corporate public affairs campaigns in a variety of industries such as gaming, cable television, retail development, auto racing, power plant/wind farm projects and housing/residential projects. Al received a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in American studies from the University of Connecticut.

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