How to put the ‘con’ into consultation: a five-point lesson from a wind energy firm (and its PR agency)
The phrase “community consultation” has a warm and friendly feel to it. Politicians of all parties agree that local communities represent all that is good, noble and unsung about modern Britain. As for consultation, it is of course an essential part of a caring, 21st century democracy.
But not always.
Having just been on the receiving end of a “community consultation”, aimed at softening up opposition to an industrial wind turbine development at Tivetshall in south Norfolk, I realise that I have been given a painful crash course in the art of spin and manipulation. In the modern dictionary, the word “consult” is to be found between “con” and “insult”.
Here, particularly for those who are likely to be subjected to a similar process in other parts of the country, is a simple, step-by-step guide to the way “community consultation” works.
1. Get yourself a PR firm.
In the case of Tivetshall, the energy firm Enertrag, who hope to erect three 140 metre turbines near the villages of Tivetshall, Dickleburgh, Gissing and Burston employed Curtin & Co whose specialisation is “community consultation and crisis management”. The partner responsible is Antony Calvert, prospective Conservative MP for Morley and Outwood.
2. Set up “workshops” for selected residents.
A letter was sent out to certain residents in a five-mile radius, inviting them to apply to attend “workshops”. Curiously, many of those who have opposed the development, including those who live closest to the proposed development, did not receive an invitation. Those who rang Curtin and Co were cross-questioned as to their attitude to wind farm development.
3. However disastrous the “workshops”, put a positive gloss on it
The meetings were a complete flop. The first was badly attended. At the second, those around the table explained sensibly and logically why this was the wrong development in the wrong place. It was something of a rout: neither the energy firm nor its PR officer were able to make a convincing case and the Enertrag representative left the meeting before it ended.
4. Write “minutes” of the workshop which put a positive spin on anything that was said at the meeting.
Here is the glory of “community consultation”. However disastrous the events themselves, they can be spun into shape later. The “minutes” of the meeting I attended presented brief questions or points from residents, followed by the replies and explanations of the professionals. Only if you were there would you know that many of the criticisms have been excluded and that the reasonable replies were not part of the meeting but the result of careful writing after it. A tiny example, one of many: it was asked by the meeting, formally and for the minutes, that photographs taken at the event should not be used for publicity purposes. That, with much else, was quietly disappeared in the minutes.
5. Make sure that the local planning committee know how carefully and conscientiously you consulted local opinion.
Do not mention that this was a selling exercise, that the views of consultees were entirely ignored, that the minutes of the event were not a true record but a PR document, that, in this consultation exercise, the conclusion was already decided.
The minutes of the Enertrag/Curtin workshop annoyed me rather – I had, after all, spend a couple of hours of my time attending this farrago – and I wrote an email to Antony Calvert. A brief, futile exchange followed before I bowed out. “I suppose it is a matter of opinion,” Calvert wrote in his final email. “ One cynic’s ‘PR exercise’ is another person’s opportunity to get things done.”
It was rather well-put, I thought. He and Enertrag were certainly try to “get things done” – their own, rather profitable things – and, when it came to the PR exercise, I and most of the others at the “community consultation” have certainly ended up as cynics.
I wonder whose fault that was.
Here are links to columns I have written in the Independent concerning the countryside, wind turbine development and, of course, “nimbyism”:
4 January 2008. Nimbyism should be applauded, not despised.
10 June 2008. Shouldn’t local people have a say on wind farms?
27 March 2009. Why I feel betrayed by the RSPB.
10 July 2009. The true driving force in the energy debate is cash.
23 October 2009. We must fight them in the fields.
16 December 2009. Governed by the ill-wind of deception.