Keller Shaft, Mammoth Cave National Park

Keller Shaft, Mammoth Cave National Park
Keller Shaft, Mammoth Cave National Park, Photo by Roger Brucker

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Chapter III: Informing others - tools to use

III. One-Way Informing: Tools to use
A. What is one-way informing
Examples of one-way informing are the advertising messages we all see and hear daily via newspapers, radio and television; also brochures, white papers, news and press releases, and Web sites. The term “one-way” refers to the fact that the author of the message communicates to the audience but does not provide an opportunity for the audience to respond.

When formulating a karst-crisis response, begin your one-way information flow by writing a comprehensive case statement, which is a description of the project and the reasons for modification of the project or opposing it.  This basic building block of a campaign can be reproduced as a basic white paper to be copied, stapled, and handed out widely at meetings, placed on tables, in offices, and posted online. The comprehensive white paper becomes a solid, fact-based and fact-checked reference for anyone writing a story or wanting to know the truth about the situation.

Informing is an important tactical tool of marketing. It puts the message in permanent form so it can be referred to during a campaign. Good information need not be delivered orally if it is accessible online and available in print. Often informing is directed at specific audience segments, such as the following:

1. Opponents: Make sure that correspondence and phone calls to developers or opponents are factual in tone, courteous, and not accusatory.  Flaming rhetoric never creates a civil or constructive atmosphere, and can harden the opponents.  In the worst case, it can backfire on your cause if the opponents can use your letters to show the public that you are combative and unreasonable.  Always assume that anything you write or say to an opponent will be used against you, and that nothing you communicate to others is private.

2.  Advocates and Allies: Communications with actual and potential allies should be factual in tone, courteous, and forthcoming about the issues you wish them to join with you.  As an example, to build a coalition of potentially sympathetic organizations, you may send a direct mail letter to a list of organizations appealing to their sense of economic, social, and environmental justice; fairness; stewardship and conservation of resources (including taxpayer funds), and benefits to the community.  Be sure to include a clear action step you want them to take, such as attend a meeting, furnish a representative, sign a petition, etc.

3.  Deciders: In many karst and cave rapid response actions it will be clear at the outset which authority will render a formal decision. Communications with this authority must be factual and unemotional in tone, present a clear narrative of the situation, and contain a clear description of the decision sought with supporting facts and references to authoritative sources as needed.  Again, an accusatory or hostile tone will be counterproductive (even if justified!).  Once “insulted,” public bodies are slow to forgive if they will forgive at all.

4. The Public: Much of the informing should be directed at the public, since any meaningful political pressure is likely to follow once they are aroused.  Citizens may react with increased interest when the appearance of shady dealing or unfairness is detected.  The challenge is to describe the bias in factual, unemotional terms – clearly showing how citizens should not be run over by a “railroad” with a one-sided purpose.  Messages in brochures or paid advertising can bring the truth to light.  Good and accurate information is the antidote to bias and lies. 

When public government bodies or developers want to dodge, duck, deny, or downplay opponents’ legitimate arguments, they often use obstruction and deception. At one meeting of the Bowling Green-Warren County Zoning Commission, proponents of the Transpark development were given from Eight pm until 11 pm to present their case. Opponents were given equal time – from midnight until 3 am the following day! Blatant unfairness may characterize some public deciders, and karst rapid responders need to be willing to describe such unfairness to the media.

In another example, opponents of a proposed mountain top coal mine next to Lake Cumberland in Kentucky were regularly given deadlines for submission of evidence that had already passed.  The approval body claimed that the unannounced deadlines were known to the coal operator, but since the deadlines had passed, no opponents’ arguments could be considered! An agency insider leaked the information that the executive head of the approval agency wished to do a favor for the coal operator and the approval process was rigged to deliver a predetermined approval of the mining project. As the whispered comment said, “He owed him one.” The travesty was that the mine drainage was planned to drain directly into a pristine cave system that directly emptied into a public water supply. 

When fair play, persuasion, and evidence are set aside by the approval agency, a legal challenge may be the only recourse of the opponents. If the opponents’ informing process is timely and comprehensive, the public will readily agree that an agency was deceptively high-handed. Once this point of view takes hold, the outcome of a situation can shift in your favor. 

B. Differentiating the argument messages
This phrase is “marketingese” for the several tools a rapid response group must develop quickly to get their message out to the public, deciders, and developers. 

1.  Basic white paper – case description:  KEEP advocates the preparation of a comprehensive white paper describing the case in detail as a FIRST task. Every aspect of the cave or karst threat should be described, along with the prevailing law and procedural process, and a history timeline of past actions.  The white paper will be used to recruit helpers – other cavers, affinity groups, experts such as lawyers, and for fund raising. 

The white paper should spell out the basis for forming a nonprofit organization, since the act of opposing a “popular” development may turn ugly. Often, a group involved in a karst crisis has to build its own organization, because organizations that depend on public goodwill and funding may be unwilling to engage in adversarial campaigns that may require unvarnished talk and legal challenges.  Or existing organizations may have timid officers and directors who place staying out of controversy above their organization’s purpose.

2.  Brochures:  A basic brochure is needed to present the case in words and photos.  It is not easy to prepare such a publication because every idea and word and photo must be selected carefully to avoid being discredited by project partisans. Use simple, direct words sparingly, and select story-telling pictures.  Remember, the white paper is the place for exhaustive narrative; the brochure must communicate facts quickly.

Please see the Appendices, item number 7, for an example of a tri-panel, two-sided brochure for printing on Eight ½ x 11” paper, developed by Eight Rivers Safe Development, Inc.  This is the eighth iteration, earlier drafts having been extensively corrected, revised, and strengthened.  The developers have never been able to attack the facts in the brochure because they were verified and cross-checked, and all claims are illustrated with verifiable photographs.  Note how the brochure directs the reader to the Eight Rivers Web site and suggests further action steps. Text is minimal and easy to read.

3.  Web site, online social networking tools:  In addition to these printed and online one-way tools, effective advocacy requires a Web site or blog site that is easy to use and can easily be updated, preferably by your group, not high-paid experts.  Check out, created quickly and amended regularly with additional information, news, fund raising appeals – and a set of photos and maps to show the viewer the karst features imperiled by a proposed regional sewage plant.  The site has a provision for viewers to contact the organization, a two-way communication opportunity. Other examples of Karst Rapid Response Web sites are at - update needed. 

In recent years, many previously one-way tools have become two-way. Activists are using Facebook pages, Twitter and other social networking tools, plus call-in radio shows, to get information flowing and people responding quickly.  (much more to come here)

4.  Advertising messages (print media, broadcast):  Paid advertising is expensive, and different from publicity.  The value of paid advertising is that you create and control the message content and deliver it to a known audience.  Unpaid publicity, while having the benefit of being free, leaves your story in the hands of others – newspaper reporters and editors, for example. You cannot control the content of free publicity.  Reporters can and often do share your news releases and statements to the press with those on the other side of the issue, seeking their adverse comments in order to create or enlarge a controversy that will attract readers.

Paid advertising is seldom used in rapid response cave advocacy because of cost.  There are times when its use should be considered.  The Eight Rivers organization heard a rumor that a politician and a contractor had influenced a public body into making a surprise decision to forge ahead with the project without resolving pending legal challenges. To prepare against that possibility, the Eight Rivers organization prepared an ad describing the political and illegal coup.  The illustration showed a political cartoon character of blindfolded Lady Justice with a broken sword and one of the identified cartoon culprits pulling down on one pan of the scales of justice. The other cartoon culprit is hauling money away.  The copy described the money grab in a few careful chosen words.  Fortunately, the ad was not needed.  Be prepared.

In a Kentucky example, KEEP learned that the local public TV station would air a 19-minute video to balance the “public service” video provided by the Transpark’s developer, extolling jobs and progress.  KEEP produced a professional video that ran on the air dozens of times and dramatized the perils to karst and water quality and to the economy of area communities if the Transpark were developed.  Now, sad to say, potential perils are becoming a reality and citizens are remembering the video.

5.  News releases and press conferences:  Expect to be covered by the press when the campaign moves into public forums, such as when your group is presenting or commenting at planning board meetings and public hearings.  Always make yourself available to answer questions, direct reporters to experts, and be ready to comment on the developer’s latest moves.  Have your “sound bites” ready ahead of time. Restrict your comments to facts, and NEVER speculate on the motives of the developers, good or bad – especially when asked to do so by reporters. If you are seen as a responsible news source, reporters will call on you frequently for comments, background information, observation, and explanations.

Issue news releases when you have significant news to reveal.  Make sure to issue releases to all newspapers, bloggers, and broadcast media at the same time. If the local media is unsympathetic or unwilling to cover your story, ask for a meeting with head editors to present your case. Editors can be led astray by stereotyping statements about “environmental wackos” and “tree-huggers.” De-demonize your group by holding in-person, professionally behaved face-to-face meetings.

For example, cave advocates in a Kentucky karst situation learned that the local newspaper publisher had issued orders that reporters not cover opposition to development and that the editor thought opponents unworthy of notice. The cave advocates scheduled a meeting with the editor, who privately admitted that the publisher was to blame for the cold shoulder.  Did coverage improve? Not much! But your situation may be different, so meet the editor and reach out to reporters and bloggers who cover your type of issue.  You can disagree without being disagreeable.

Karst and cave advocates have a particular challenge convincing reporters that their issues are of interest to the general public. Try ahead of time to answer the question: Why should people care about this issue?   Pocketbook (money) issues are ones that most people care about, and most karst/cave protection issues can be recast in ways that are factually correct and show the development burden or waste from a taxpayer standpoint.   You do not need to make people into karst and cave lovers to get them to agree with you about wasting taxpayer dollars!. 
When should you call a press conference?  When you have found a truly newsworthy revelation, consider calling a news conference.  Invite all the media – TV, radio, newspapers.  Hold the news conference in a place that is handy for reporters to reach, such as a downtown restaurant’s party room.  Prepare press kits in advance: a labeled paper folder contains a news release regarding the event, the white paper, your brochure, and any additional exhibits such as photos.  Keep track of who attends. Deliver, mail, or email a digital version of the press kit to any news media that were invited but did not attend. Save hard and digital copies of everything you produce, to make the process easier the next time.

An example of a “truly newsworthy revelation” follows. Opponents of an industrial development in Kentucky to be located on a karst plain above underground rivers learned of a market research study commissioned by the developer.  The leaked study conclusion: There was no way the development could be economically successful.  Unsurprisingly, the developer decided to keep the study a secret.  Opponents called a press conference to reveal the existence of the secret study and its leaked conclusion. 

Media attendance at the press conference resulted in TV and press stories.  The developer said the study was only “preliminary” and refused to reveal the results. They promised to reveal the study later, but never did.  Now, nearly seven years later at this writing, the project is deeply in debt and taxpayers are being asked to fork over more than a million dollars of yearly bond interest on a largely empty industrial park.  While it is no consolation to the citizens, they now know they were lied to by the developer and his local government advocates. 

6.  Public presentations:  Your group needs to develop one or more public presentations that can be easily rolled out with little advance planning or notice, and that can be made available for downloading or viewing at your Web site. KEEP and Eight Rivers Safe Development have created numerous presentations and public demonstrations. Descriptions of several follow, and a list of available presentations with Web links is available in the Appendices, item number 2.

The group Eight Rivers Safe Development, Inc., organized to prevent the building of a regional sewage plant on a karst floodplain in upland West Virginia, developed an educational road show.  The two components consisted of a slide show of the particular karst features that would be impacted by the sewage treatment plant, and a generic PowerPoint program, Problems With Karst, that is available and appropriate for use in most karst settings. This 45-minute program describes in detail the problems of collapse, flooding, and groundwater contamination that often result from unthinking or aggressive development on karst, and is suitable for a wide variety of audiences as a rapid response tool. 
7. Public meetings and hearings: Public meetings and hearings may take place when developers or government officials reveal plans that threaten karst areas. Sometimes a permit request by the developer to a government agency will trigger a public hearing at which public comment is recorded and collected. In other situations the public may have to demand a public hearing. There may also be opportunities for your group to make comments at zoning board meetings and other regularly scheduled local government meetings. These events differ by local, state and federal agency and type of situation, and you may need to obtain advice from seasoned campaigners as to what to expect and what to ask for – and demand, if needed.

Once a meeting or hearing is scheduled, you need to prepare what you will say during the public comment time period, and what you will submit in writing to supplement your public statements. You should coordinate with other groups and individuals to ensure that the range of comments you want to submit are fully covered. Dress professionally. Keep your comments dispassionate, fact-based and non-accusatory. Bring along your own experts with maps and facts, and set them up outside the hearing room next to the ones provided by the developers and agencies.

Keep in mind that cavers and others interested in protecting caves and karst are often at a disadvantage in such public presentation opportunities. Here’s why, and what to do about it.

  • There is general ignorance by officials, developers, and the public of caves, karst values and karst hazards: Cavers are experts about a vast unseen realm of our planet that few others ever see, and that many are frightened of. We cavers go into a hearing assuming that the “surface-dwellers” will instantly understand what we are talking about regarding caves, their biota, cave rivers, etc. However, these folks often don’t know – and don’t want to know. This can include surface water protection organizations and other environmental protection groups – folks you thought were your allies! Prepare your presentations to overcome these biases and limitations.

  • Expert testimony by engineering or geology consultants representing the developer may result in false impressions, despite scientific facts  to the contrary – distortions and falsehoods are difficult for lay people to detect: For example, in Kentucky a strip mine coal company hired consultants to write a summary of the geology of an area for their permit application. The consultant report left out all references to the caves and karst features prevalent in that area, leaving in only material pertaining to the very marginal coal resources. This misinformation was presented verbally at a public hearing and repeated in the permit application. It took careful reading by KEEP members and many comment letters to get this misinformation corrected, one of many similar corrections called for and omissions corrected.

  • The political lure of “jobs and progress through development” trumps prudence and reinforces ignorance on the part of approval authorities: Cavers and other environmental advocates may feel a certain chill of hostility when they enter a public hearing. They are regarded as “outsiders,” “not from here,” who are “out to destroy jobs and prosperity”. Do not get involved in any sort of give-and-take that can escalate to shouting or violence. Remain dignified and remember that you are entitled to be there, expressing your support of the laws and regulations that protect the environment. If someone shouts at you or accuses you of anything, keep your head down, apologize (even if you did not do anything), and watch your back when you go out to your car and drive away after the meeting.

  • Technical karst presentations are complex and hard to follow, especially because caves are mysterious and out of sight: Keep it simple, at public meetings. Maps, photos and brief demonstrations help bridge gaps in understanding.

A company in southern Kentucky was trying to obtain permission to expand a landfill, allowing it to drain into a major cave and associated sinkholes. In newspaper articles, local officials referred to the “alleged cave,” arguing that cavers had no proof that there was really a cave – draining to Lake Cumberland – downslope of and beneath the landfill site. So, the cave protection group prepared a six foot tall map of the cave, superimposed on the surface topography and including the landfill and its expansion area. (This was in the days prior to ArcView, so this was all done by hand.) After that meeting, it was impossible for anyone to call the cave “alleged”!

You can use your three-minute comment period to deliver a vivid and memorable demonstration of the caves and karst that are under threat. Karst advocates can employ simple “Mr. Science” demonstrations to dramatize the truths and overcome the problems listed above.  Simplification of scientific processes has long been an effective teaching tool in schools and museums. The maxim “Seeing is believing,” when based on a memorable demonstration, can reinforce understanding as nothing else can.  Of course, proponents of development will charge that such demonstrations are “theatrical” or “oversimplified”.  Such criticism is likely to be a tribute to the power of a good demonstration to persuade. (See the Appendices, item number 3, for a sample demonstration.)

  • Representatives of the public are often allocated only a few minutes to speak: Find out the requirements for public comment prior to the meeting or hearing. You don’t want to try to fit a five-page statement into a three-minute time-period! It’s better to read a set of bullet points that summarize your concerns, and hand in the full written set of comments for the record.

If you are going to take more than the three- or five-minute limit, negotiate with the meeting conveners to let you have the additional minutes they would have given to others. If they refuse, protest for the record that evening and follow up with written protests afterwards.

  • Remember this basic rule for public meetings of any kind: Get the names and contact information of all the public employees present. Not just the ones who introduce themselves and appear to be in charge, but anyone who is in any way associated with the hearing or meeting.

Often, lower-level employees have the thankless task of running a hearing, while more powerful higher-ups are there to observe the proceedings and report back to the power-brokers above them. Just as often, there may be a bait and switch following the meeting, such as when you are told, “It was not a real meeting,” or that the deadline for comments expired prior to the meeting!

In this case, you will need to make a very big stink to ensure that your comments are not discarded. That requires contacting not only the miserable low-echelon drones who had you write down your name and talk into the mike, but the bigger guys and gals who were silently standing or sitting nearby and listening intently, and who faded away afterwards.

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