Los Angeles -- It is the worst fear of any company. At the height of the recession in California, entertainment giant Twentieth Century Fox was planning a $200 million renovation and expansion plan, which would consolidate the studio's operations on one site and generate additional revenue for the city. All construction would take place within the footprint of Fox's 53 acres. Other cities in the area were courting the studio to relocate, eager for the jobs and revenue. However, Fox wanted to stay in Los Angeles, where it had been for 70 years. What was needed was the city council's vote of approval.
Suddenly, vocal opposition began coming from a handful of neighboring homeowners, who claimed the expansion would worsen traffic and further destroy the neighborhood's quality of life. The local media fed fuel to the fire by running a series of stories on the controversy, and the councilmembers were getting nervous about granting any permits for expansion.
Times have certainly changed. In the past, developers and builders had things their own way. Today, blue butterflies, spotted owls and disgruntled home owners have slowed or even stopped many beneficial development projects in a new version of the David vs. Goliath story.
Opposition to a development project frequently comes from community organizations, who demand input into many aspects of the development. These organizations are run arbitrarily by a board of directors, which rarely seeks specific opinions from members before taking an organization-wide position. Often, the board, and particularly the president, believe that no-growth is the position preferred by their members. This is not always the case.
The local government, on the other hand, is comprised of elected officials with a desire to be reelected. Their fear of making a political mistake, combined with increased regulations, have slowed down the governmental approval process to a crawl. Numerous "public hearings" provide a protective shield for the councilmembers, who look to the community's input to determine their own positions.
Now, it was Fox's turn to demonstrate the support of the business and residential communities to properly influence the local government in a positive way.
For most projects, community support exists in the "silent majority" of the community. The challenge is identifying and activating this support. It is important to determine the pulse of the community in the early stages by conducting an opinion poll. The results provide the specific strengths and weaknesses of the project, indicate the significant issues facing the project and determine the level of support in the community.
Using these results, the builder or developer must build a communication bridge with the community by soliciting as much community input as possible, prior to government review. At the same time, key benefits of the project must be communicated to the community so as to gamer more support.
For Fox Studio, our firm first organized a local group to take on the vocal opponents of the project who were getting the press coverage. Through a series of one-on-one meetings and speaking engagements, we were able to gain the support of the local chambers of commerce, which in conjunction with Fox, did direct mailings to all members. with support cards included. "Town meetings" with business owners and residents garnered more support for the project and led to endorsements from key opinion leaders. A key to Friends of Fox's success was the identification of a forceful president who was a member of the homeowners association which was most vocal in its opposition to the project.
An aggressive community relations plan was put into place, which included the following elements:
A speakers bureau was created to speak about the benefits of the project to the various community groups in the area. Speakers were recruited from management of Fox Studio and from the citizen's group, Friends of Fox. Speaking engagements to homeowners associations, civic organizations, local schools, churches and other service organizations got the key messages of the project across and garnered support.
Using the key messages, fact sheets and backgrounders were written to communicate Fox's point of view to the local media, which had so far only heard one side of the story. Media releases were describing every aspect of the project, including project milestones, results of economic studies and statistics.
Editors and reporters who had been critical of the project were targeted for individual interviews and tours of the site with key members of management and the support group. Press conferences and media briefings were held on site. An editorial board meeting with the Los Angeles Times was secured, which resulted in an unprecedented three endorsements of the project in the paper's opinon section. Hundreds of positive letters to the editor generated fair stories about the expansion project in the local media.
Fact sheets, full-color renderings of the project and summaries of the surveys were produced and widely distributed to all target audiences. The Friends of Fox newsletter provided updates on the group's activities, feature stories on the history of the studio, and progress reports on the renovation and expansion plans. Profiles of the group's leaders were featured. The plain, no-frills newsletter had a circulation of more than 5,000 residents and local businesses.
Supplemental to the newsletter, direct-mail pieces with specific information on upcoming hearings or special events were mailed by the thousands.
Movie screenings and studio tours exclusively for Friends of Fox maintained a sense of unity and cooperation within the group. Prior to viewing the movie or taking the tour, the volunteer president of Friends of Fox addressed the guests, updating them on the most recent progress made with the expansion. The special events also provided a way to express thanks and appreciation to members of the group for the time and effort dedicated to supporting the renovation of the studio.
With our encouragement, Friends of Fox wrote 1,200 letters to their city councilmembers. Petitions were circulated in support of the Fox expansion and gathered more than 4,000 signatures, which were then presented to the council. Regular telephone calls to key opinion leaders kept the lines of communication open. Friends of Fox, wearing buttons expressing their support, attended and spoke at 10 public hearings and votes. Individual meetings with councilmembers were scheduled and attended by community supporters as well as management.
The result: at a public hearing one year after beginning the campaign, Friends of Fox showed up en masse and took up most of the 500 seats, all wearing red buttons in support of Fox. When only about 50 opponents showed up, it was clear the tide was turning.
Three years after beginning the consensus-building process, the city council overwhelmingly passed the $200 million expansion on a vote of 14 to 1.
The consensus building process takes time and financial resources, but in the long run, saves the greater cost of a lengthy approval process. Real estate projects bring many benefits to the community that are frequently overlooked or diminished by project opponents. A comprehensive community relations plan, with an objective of consensus building, can ensure a timely, cost-effective build-out.