Occasionally I revert to the bad-temper and cynicism of my youth. This has been known to happen when I visit my siblings, for example, or after losing a tennis match.
Or when I attend civic meetings, particularly when the meeting is held on a weekend in the early morning at a high school cafeteria and I’m sitting in one of those cement-like student chairs, about to endure an endless lecture and Power Point presentation. Oh my god, it’s Saturday and I’m back in detention all over again.
This past weekend L.A. County held a public forum regarding , sediment that has accumulated over the years, but particularly after the recent fire and heavy rains. The purpose of the project, whichever form it ultimately takes, is to increase current resevoir capacity and restore full flood control capability to Devil's Gate Dam.
The county recently attempted to implement an emergency sediment removal plan that would have circumvented even nominal environmental checks and balances. Many citizens felt this approach ill-advised, one that would ride roughshod over wildlife habitats, contribute noise and air pollution to surrounding neighborhoods and in other ways prove detrimental from both an environmental and health perspective.
Oh, I'll bet I just tipped my hand and you can guess which team I'm on.
But, anyway, after public outcry, the county agreed to an Environmental Impact Report. And that's where we stand now, and that's why I was at a meeting on a Saturday at 9 a.m. Call me a benchwarmer for the environmental team.
As with most meetings of this ilk, the county did most of the talking, and only after they ran out of wind and steam were members of the “public” in the “public scoping meeting” allowed three minutes each to argue the case for alternative sediment removal plans. Three minutes? I can’t even order a burger and fries in three minutes.
Fortunately, some of the three-minute men and women were true pros. They knew the drill. They've been protecting the wet and wild land in Hahamongna for the past quarter century and can cram an amazing amount of information, complete with facts and figures, into three minutes.
In short (in very short, leaving out the details): Consider best practices--how other cities, states, countries handle sediment removal. Consider moving the sediment within the confines of the area, perhaps convey it over the dam or up the arroyo. Consider alternatives to the trucks and the traffic; work around some of the more vital and habitat-rich areas. Use this as an opportunity to create a long-term and responsible solution, rather than just a one-off with unconsidered implications.
The director of the consultant group spearheading the county's Environmental Impact Report promised the concerns and suggestions of the speakers would be taken under advisement.
Well, yeah, OK. But this whole thing gave me the sneaking suspicion that we, Team Environmental, weren't converting anyone (none of the county movers and shakers were in attendance), but pretty much preaching to the choir; in other words, talking amongst ourselves.
As one with a background in corporate communications, I think I understand the county communication strategy all too well. It’s about foregone conclusions and control. Hold meetings, pay lip service to public input, but keep insinuating elements of your original agenda until you wear the opposition down. Run the meeting and control the clock.
I see lots of other communication strategies at play. Drag out the presentation time. Don’t just show a Power Point slide; read every darned word that’s on it. If you can't officially win the debate, try to bore the opposition to death.
One more communication strategy: Never say in one word that which you can say in two.
“They’re trying to break our spirit,” I whispered to a friend, when a new Power Point slide appeared with 20 bullet points.
“Did he just say they’d consider the effect of truck noise on our sensory receptors?” My friend whispered back. “Sensory receptors--Do you think he meant ears?”