Guest Op-Ed: Managing Social and Political Risk in the Digital Age

Guest Op-Ed: Managing Social and Political Risk in the Digital Age

September 13, 2019  | Stephanie White, HDR, Strategic Communications Director

I once heard a story about the communication strategy of the Kennedy-era White House. Their rules were simple:

Never write a letter when a phone call will do.

Never make a phone call when a meeting will do.

Never have a meeting when a handshake will do.

Never shake a hand when a wink will do. 

I got my first email address at the age of 25, at the dawn of the digital age that would come to shape our society. In the decades that followed, social media swept the nation and reshaped the speed and nature of communication. We are not talking about winks and handshakes anymore.

Communication Strategies of the 21st Century

We live in a time when advocacy groups — both for and against a transportation project — can spring up and go global in an instant. Public support for a bond issue can disappear or political backing for a new interchange can evaporate overnight. Poorly informed viral campaigns can cause lasting damage to corporate or agency brands and ruin professional reputations in the blink of an eye.

This risk is a real and important factor to consider when launching new policies, programs or projects. It deserves careful attention at the planning stage, where it can be carefully assessed and when there is time to develop strategies to mitigate against or diminish the risk. Highway projects can be delayed or scrapped by one vocal constituency.

Specific project characteristics provide clear signals of this type of risk, a few of which are provided in the table below.

Transportation Project Characteristics that Signal Low, Medium, or High Social and Political Risk

Low Risk

Medium Risk

High Risk

  • Little to no public impact
  • Owner is a trusted community steward
  • Routine project type
  • No benefit to local community
  • Current or past negative media coverage of the owner
  • Multi-jurisdictional conflict
  • Project will require increased taxes/rates
  • Existing controversy around the project
  • Significant human/environmental impacts

The Ones to Watch Carefully

What may be surprising is that the failed projects are not always the ones with high risk factors. Low risk factors should be acknowledged and monitored but do not usually impact project success. High risk characteristics are so obvious that most teams on controversial projects engage PR professionals early on and are able to develop strategies that effectively mitigate against the risk. Large road-repair programs or bridge mega-projects that require a tax increase are almost always accompanied with campaigns that proactively engage skeptical constituents.

The initiatives that fail are often the ones that have medium risk factors — the public transit system that adjusts its neighborhood routes, the road widening that will improve congestion but impact a historic area. They fail because project teams either didn’t realize there was a risk or didn’t think the risk was big enough to impact the project. The cost of ignoring public outreach is the absence of a positive portrayal of a project, which presents the opportunity for any compelling narrative to take hold, even if incomplete or not factual. In almost every case, strong communications, decision-making transparency, and community consensus building efforts would have achieved a more favorable outcome.

It is important to note that social and political opposition isn’t necessarily a bad thing — sometimes it uncovers critical flaws or opportunities for improvement that the project team hadn’t considered. Perhaps a road can be rerouted to spare a historic church, or a transit station can be constructed a block closer to the school where most people will take advantage of it. Even so, controversy is costly, both in reputation and in dollars, illustrating another benefit of assessing the risk at the onset of project planning. A proactive strategy may uncover ways to reshape an initiative in such a way that the public will more easily get on board and controversy can be avoided all together.

Looking Toward the Future

Technology and trends will continue to evolve, and stakeholders will employ these new methods to rally support and gain momentum. These dramatic changes have created an environment where social and political influence is swift and powerful. It can dramatically impact the success or failure of a project as well as the success or failure of entire industries.

Social and political risk is not new. What is new is the viral nature of its growth and the often acute transparency of its agenda. Transportation in particular can be sensitive in our busy world, in which we value our time and react with skepticism toward anything that will delay us or impact our pocketbooks, even temporarily. A strong, well-thought-out public process and education campaign is always the best remedy.

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