Successfully Communicating With Adversarial Stakeholders

Since 1990, BMF has specialized in helping clients manage a wide variety of contentious and challenging community relations issues. While we’ve seen, heard, learned and taught a lot over those 30+ years, a two and a half year engagement to assist a client seeking to undertake a controversial energy project really helped us galvanize our experience into important lessons for others to learn as well. 

Following is Part One of our two-part series on communicating with contentious or hostile stakeholders on a long-term project. Happy reading!

1.  Anticipate the unexpected and never take anything for granted

As you scope your project, conduct an honest and clinical assessment of its impact and perceived impact on the people around you (both favorable and unfavorable). Don’t assume anything (“Texas is an oil and gas state. People are used to what we’re planning to do.”).  Carefully consider the risks and perceived risks from the outside in and formulate the messaging, communications vehicles and plans for dealing with a public that may not see things the same way you do.

2. Know about yourself what your detractors may eventually find out

The first thing those who oppose what you’re planning will do to line up others against you is to conduct a deep dive into your corporate reputation and your history in projects in other communities. The internet, regulatory agencies and the courts provide a wealth of history on your company, such as environmental or workplace violations and penalties, bad press, ugly lawsuits etc. If your history is positive, don’t be afraid to make that point or to line up high-level third-party advocates who will resonate with project stakeholders. Be prepared to address all of this and more and to shift the discussion to the positive impacts you’ve had on other people and communities.

3. Be willing to understand that your project opponents have a right to their opinions, concerns and fears   

Being dismissive without being fair isn’t a wise strategy for trying to engage, educate and possibly reconcile differences of opinion. Importantly, it also demonstrates arrogance and a lack of respect.

4. Engage your friends early on and give them appropriate ways to help

This would include others in your industry who see through any unfounded allegations of those who may not abide by a litmus test of the facts. Include current and potential vendors, investors and employees. Keep them informed of progress and upcoming events such as permit hearings and public meetings. Avoid putting them in a bad spot unless there’s no way around it, and above all, thank them appropriately all along the way.

For the remainder of this blog and access to Part Two of this series, contact Greg Beuerman at