November 2012 Bar Bulletin
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November 2012 Bar Bulletin

Managing Media in a Permitting Campaign

By Steve Boyer


No legal challenge demands practicing in the court of public opinion quite like permitting a major development project. To be successful in the public arena today, an attorney must be technologically savvy as well as personally persuasive outside the court of law. And that's in addition to being just darn good at the law itself.

From an energy facility to a mixed-used development to an apartment or condo complex, all permit approvals require meeting legal and regulatory requirements. But the final permits are granted by an appointed government official, an appointed body such as a planning or regulatory commission or, for the largest projects, an elected council or commission.

That means the court of public opinion is now in session. And opponents crying, "Not in my backyard," are lined up and ready to testify.

Those opponents are more vociferous, numerous and organized than ever before. Social media have created a new network of instant communication and accessible knowledge for opposition to any project.

Whether it's a local neighborhood or national group, opponents can build websites and Facebook pages and write blogs and Twitter postings. They can make good-quality videos and post them on YouTube.

They can organize and mobilize, research and share, contact each other and outside audiences such as media or the decision makers themselves - all at near-instantaneous speed with both global and targeted reach.

The attorney's challenge is to guide the client in countering the opposition with its own strategic communications campaign. The communications campaign itself requires three primary legs of strategy - website and social media; traditional media; and direct, personal coalition building.

Despite all of media's visibility and technology's impact, the most important campaign element remains the coalition and the direct, personal outreach to recruit its members. The reason is that, in the court of public opinion, what often finally decides whether a project is approved is its societal right to operate.

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