How to Turn Your Public Against You

Are you facing a sensitive issue like PFAS in drinking water or biosolids? Here are some foolproof ways to lose your community’s trust and support.

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So, testing has revealed trace amounts of PFAS in your drinking water wells or the biosolids from your clean-water plant.

When members of your community find out, they will be concerned and look to you for answers to their questions. Here are some proven ways to make sure they lose confidence in your organization and turn against you.

1.  Keep the issue quiet. What people don’t know will not hurt them. You and your team know what to do about the problem. Getting the community involved will only create confusion. Just keep things under wraps while you work on a solution. If information leaks out and people become concerned, that’s the time to start communicating.

2. Don’t waste time planning. There’s no need for fancy communication plans. Just get the message out as quickly and simply as possible. A news release, a press conference and maybe a public meeting will surely suffice.

3. Make the risk look small. So what if there are tiny amounts of a chemical in the water? It’s only a few parts per trillion. Tell people: “A part per trillion is one droplet of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool. What harm can that possibly do?” That is sure to put their fears to rest and keep them quiet.

4. Be logical. This is about scientific information; people’s feelings should not enter into it. When presenting information, stick to numbers, charts, diagrams, statistics. Once people understand the facts, they will come around. If people get emotional about risk to their own or their families’ health, just tell them to calm down and look at the data.

5. Emphasize your knowledge and credentials. Make sure people understand that you and your colleagues are the ultimate authorities. You have certifications, college degrees in some cases, and decades of experience. The uninformed opinions of school teachers, garage mechanics, hairdressers and store clerks are not to be respected.

6. Ridicule the activists. You might be confronted by people from established environmental groups or a grassroots organization that springs up locally. Emphasize that these people are alarmists and are not to be listened to. Dismiss them as cranks, worrywarts and “tree-huggers.”

7. In public meetings, stay in control. People in attendance should be there to listen, not to talk. Give a long presentation with all the necessary technical detail. Ignore the hands that get raised as you make your case. Questions and answers can wait until the end. There probably won’t be many questions if you have covered the subject properly.

8. Make it clear who is in charge. Issues like this are best resolved by experts. Your staff and engineering consultants know what is best. Decide on a solution, announce your plan and be ready to defend it. Suggestions from ill-informed members of the public are not to be taken seriously; following them will only make things complicated and increase costs.

9. Treat the media like your enemy. If they pick up your releases, fine. If they start to dig deeper, shut them out. Reporters have their own agendas and are not to be trusted. If they call, don’t engage with them. Just read a prepared statement, or simply say, “No comment.” And be sure to let the public know how unfairly the media are treating you.

10. Don’t bother looking for outside help. Fancy communication consultants cost big money. They are more interested in their hourly fees than in helping you. And what do they know about your community? You can handle things on your own; you have done it for years.

Follow these rules and you can count on a future of dealing with a mistrusting public and a deeply damaged reputation.   


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