A small newspaper expected the community would be pleased several years ago when it announced plans to build a new office and production site near a local mall and residential area. Company management was surprised when several community groups protested the plant because they believed it would be noisy and would create dangerous fumes, based on their knowledge of newspaper operations in the 1930s and 1940s. Numerous company officials tried to explain that the technology had changed, the plant would not be noisy, and no dangerous fumes would be created. The wave of public opinion was too strong and the company was soon forced to abandon plans for the new plant.
Several years later, a sister company of the small newspaper was planning a new office and production site. The company president and project managers sat down with government agencies, civic leaders, and neighbors of the potential plant site to incorporate community concerns into the plant design. The announcement of the plant was a pleasant event and plant management continued meeting with the advisory group once the plant was operational to continue receiving input on plant operation. The plant and the community continue to co-exist in a warm, synergistic relationship.
The first story was a failure, the second a success. The difference between the two is the effective use of a citizen advisory panel (CAP). However, using a CAP is more than inviting a few people in to talk. Success requires having clear objectives, high-level corporate support, broad community involvement, and positive intergroup dynamics.
A CAP is a group of citizens who meet periodically with representatives of a company to discuss the impact of the company on the local community and environment. CAPS are one proactive way that organizations can improve their communication with the public and develop more responsive management policies. While CAPs offer a number of benefits, many organizations have experienced difficulties in implementing them effectively because they fear raising the organization to a higher level of public scrutiny and involvement.
CAPs typically range in size from seven to 15 members and meet on a monthly or quarterly basis with selected corporate officials. Panel members usually represent different segments of the community including government, businesses, neighborhood associations, environmentalists, and minorities.
CAPs offer a way for companies to assure the public about the safety of their operations and the thoroughness of their environmental management programs or, in fact, to enhance such programs through broader participation. This is particularly important in industries where there are safety concerns such as hazardous material storage or disposal. Advisory groups can also enable an organization to develop consensus with the public on issues such as facility expansion, as the earlier incident described. Further, CAPs can inform organizations of community expectations and concerns so that they can be addressed prior to becoming major problems. In sum, CAPs can enable organizations to better manage community concerns regarding corporate activities.
A downside of CAPs is that they typically involve costs such as for company officials’ time, food and beverages at meetings, and communication materials. Sometimes there are also additional costs for renting a conference room, paying for a third party meeting facilitator, and/or reimbursing panelists for mileage. There is also the possibility that new costs will emerge from suggestions made by a CAP concerning a firm’s operations. At the same time, there is a strong possibility that a CAP’s input will lessen or avert the costs associated with community opposition.
Establish the Purpose and Objectives of a CAP
An important first step in creating an effective CAP is to determine the strategic reasons for such a panel. Some organizations primarily intend their CAP as a one-way communication vehicle from the organization to panel members. However, setting up a CAP that has longer lasting effects and is more effective means that organizations open themselves up to greater public scrutiny and demands.
Before initiating a CAP, management should ask itself how much feedback it really wants from the CAP, and whether it is willing to receive tough feedback or questions from panel members. Second, corporate officials must decide how much information they are willing to disclose about the company. Where does the company draw the line on requests? How will the company handle situations in which it declines to provide information requested by panel members?
Another consideration is how much input or influence into corporate decision making is the company willing to allow from the CAP. Companies always have the final say on organizational decisions, but executives still need to ask themselves if they simply want communication with the community or a real partnership in which the community will have some influence on company decisions. We suggest that only organizations willing to step outside the traditional corporate perspective and become a partner with local citizens consider developing a CAP.
Organizations can conduct CAPs on an ad hoc, ongoing, or joint basis. Ad hoc CAPs are panels that meet periodically on specific projects or issues. This works well for large issues that occur only one time such as locating a hazardous waste disposal facility or cleaning up a Superfund site. Ongoing CAPs involve meeting with citizens on a quarterly or monthly basis. Organizations typically develop agendas for these meetings and use the time between meetings to collect information and respond to requests from panel members. Joint CAPs may be used by organizations that are located near each other or are in similar industries. This allows the companies to work collectively with the public to solve common problems and pursue mutual goals.
After deciding on the timeframe of CAP arrangement, the next issue that organizations face is how to define the “community” or geographic area to be represented by the panel. Geographic options for plant facilities can include the neighborhoods adjacent to the plant, the city in which they operate, or the area that would reasonably be affected by emissions from the plant. The company needs to think carefully about choosing one of these options and then select appropriate panel members.
Then, the organization must determine the size and membership of the CAP. Most CAPs include from 7 to 15 members although size can vary widely depending on the characteristics of the company and its surrounding geographic area. Truly representative panels are essential to establishing an effective partnership.
The company must carefully plan the first CAP meeting because this initial communication can set the tone for the subsequent process. Ideally, the company manager or panel facilitator should telephone or personally visit prospective panelists to discuss their interest in the panel before the first meeting. Once a meeting date (e.g. a weekday evening or Saturday morning) is determined, the company should send out a letter at least two weeks in advance detailing the time and specific directions to the CAP location and follow up with phone calls to ensure attendance at the first meeting.
Holding the first meeting at a neutral site may show that the CAP is truly meant as a two-way communication tool. A typical first meeting starts with introduction of the panelists. Next, the company manager discusses an issue or topic in which the community is interested. Examples of relevant topics include local media reports, any facility incidents or accidents, pollution emission releases, and key corporate environmental accomplishments or programs. Finally, a discussion should be conducted about what CAP membership will mean to panelists. This orientation might include:
- The company manager sharing his/her expectations of the panel.
- The company manager and panel jointly discussing the purpose or mission of the panel and the kinds of activities with which the panel should be involved.
- The panel and company should also discuss the scheduling of future CAP meetings.
The following steps are recommended to ensure the ongoing effectiveness of a CAP:
Step 1 – Send a High Level Corporate Manager
The company should send a plant manager or other high level manager to CAP meetings. This shows the importance of the CAP to the company. It is important to identify a second high level manager (e.g. environmental, human resource, or public relations managers) to fill in when needed. Other employees may be asked to attend meetings if they can serve as resources on specific issues.
Step 2 – Assist the CAP in Developing its Purpose
The company should assist the panel members in developing their own mission statement or statement of purpose and objectives. What does the panel want to get out of the CAP? An example of a mission statement from one company is to, “Provide feedback from the community on the local company’s operations and to find ways to improve the communication of the company to the community.”
Step 3 – Jointly Decide on CAP Leadership
The panel and the company need to jointly determine CAP leadership and how meeting agendas will be set. One option is have the company manager be the meeting leader. A disadvantage of this approach is that it may appear like the company is seeking to control the meetings. Another alternative is to have a trained independent facilitator lead the meetings. However, this approach will increase the cost of operating the CAP. Finally, if there is a community member with strong leadership skills, he or she might be asked to lead meetings.
Step 4 – Decide on the CAP Role in Corporate Decisions
Fourth, the company needs to decide how much information it will share with the CAP. Companies typically provide information on the quantity of plant emissions, how the plant gets an operating permit, the company’s overall environmental performance, emergency response plans, and details about specific plant issues such as Superfund site, waste disposal, etc.
Step 5 – Address the Issue of Confidentiality
Will meetings be open to the public? Should the media be involved and, if so, under what conditions? Most CAPs have deliberations that are private, so there is less positioning by participants and the company officials. How will CAP issues be communicated after the meetings? What agreement or understanding is to be made about how “public” is the information discussed in the CAP meetings? Are minutes to be taken in meetings and are they to be provided to the general public?
Step 6 – Assist the CAP in Functioning as a Team
The company should provide an environment that helps the CAP members work as a team. Panel members should be given time and support on how to improve their teamwork and develop their own working style. Toward this goal, companies might want to consider sponsoring a dinner to help foster communication and understanding among the panel members.
Step 7 – Determine Future Meeting Logistics
The company should carefully set the logistics of meetings to facilitate effective communication. The panel and the company should jointly decide if meetings should be held onsite at the organization versus offsite at another location. The cost of holding offsite meetings needs to be balanced against the sense of company control that might be present onsite. It is preferable to have a large round table or to rearrange tables to facilitate equal participation by all members in CAP meetings. The company should provide visual aids, such as flip charts, so that information and ideas can be better displayed for discussion. A tour of the facility can often help panelists better understand and know the company.
CAPs offer significant potential for organizations to communicate better with their local communities. This communication can enable organizations to be better community citizens, to perceive and better manage citizen concerns, to receive input which can result in better environmental management practices, and to obtain support for corporate facility projects. Organizations that follow these guidelines will be more likely to develop a successful and productive CAP.