“People Like to Be Asked”

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As Tip O’Neill learned from one of his neighbors after taking her vote for granted and losing his first election, “People like to be asked.” Even though Tip had known this neighbor for years and she voted for him, this legendary politician learned an invaluable lesson about cultivating political support. (O’Neill and Novak, 1987)

O’Neill’s foundational lesson speaks to one reason why grassroots organizing is so effective. It’s not only the most persuasive form of voter outreach: it engenders respect and trust at the same time. It should come as no surprise that this is lesson is directly applicable to land use politics, and it is astounding how often developers neglect to engage residents, especially those living in close proximity to their projects.

We have seen developers of controversial projects survey land and place stakes in the ground without ever bothering to inform neighbors of what they were proposing. Under such circumstances, developers may possibly regain the trust of neighbors, but initial ill will is likely to prolong the development timeline. But trust may never be regained and, as a result, neighbors may exercise their option to retain legal counsel, derailing the project for years—or indefinitely.

Even if you think that you are unlikely to gain the support of nearby neighbors, it is crucial to reach out to them for several reasons.

  • First, you may be able to convert opponents into supporters by addressing their concerns. 
  • Second, you may find issues on which you can compromise through negotiations based on mutual gains. 
  • Third, if you can’t find such issues, you can at least mitigate the opposition. 
  • Fourth, even if the opposition can’t be mitigated, you can always preserve your reputation by being proactive and engaging the community. This is essential as each project sets a precedent for the next: your opposition can dredge up your missteps at any point in the future.

Regardless of the outcome, all developers should reach out to neighbors because “People like to be asked.” And, of course, you should be certain to ask before stakes are in the ground.

Excerpt from “So What?: Measuring and Assessing Strategic Communications in Land Use Politics”, which describes a management consulting firm’s approach to winning political campaigns and has been hailed as one of the best business books on politics by industry, political, communications and academic leaders.

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