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Spring Journal

Volume 31, Issue 1

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Savvy Managers Realize that Stonewalling is a Thing of the Past

We've all seen it in the media countless times: corporations depicted as the 'Great Satan' of modern industrial society recklessly polluting, rampaging and destroying whole environments with an air of casual callousness and apparent impunity. The telecommunications industry is one that makes daily news headlines with the bottom-line message being: 'This is what you ought NOT to do in responding to a crisis.' One example should suffice to illustrate the point.

When Sprint PCS Cellular erected a digital telephone antenna tower in a Jacksonville, FL community, 'neighbors complained as soon as the antenna was erected atop a new, 97-foot concrete pole,' according to the Florida Times Union.  

The controversy escalated apace to include all-encompassing - and equally dreaded -- allegations centered on the long-term effects of exposure to PCS tower RF emissions. Even a hint of the medical aspect of this facet of the controversy was enough to fan the flames of public indignation and hostility. An oft-repeated refrain that was invoked throughout the ensuing litigation was that Sprint, in the words of the media, 'never told anyone what they were going to do.' Perhaps they should have.

During the legal battle that followed, local citizens armed themselves with verbal firepower by citing existing legislation/ordinances, aesthetics and the dire consequences - though scientifically unproven -- of 'adverse medical-effects of RF exposure' syndrome as arguments mandating the tower's removal. The locals won. As a result of their activism, the city restructured its zoning codes to rigorously control PCS tower siting activities in an effort 'to promote the health, safety and general welfare of the citizens.'

Not an isolated incident, this scenario is being repeated across the country where the prospect of siting PCS towers in residential areas has produced growing opposition by sometimes overly-concerned and generally ill-informed citizens. And the results have been devastating for companies interested in expanding their operations. Aero Communications, an Orlando, FL-based company, for example, was denied a zoning variance request to erect a 125-foot tower for providing cellular phone service in another Florida community due to antagonistic community activism.

Yet again, homeowners in Los Angeles have organized a grass-roots effort to fight a tower expansion program by L.A. Cellular. Too, questions about the health and safety factors associated with living in close proximity to cellular towers have sparked serious controversy in the state of Connecticut. In Michigan, citizen activists defeated Cellular One's proposal to build a transmitting facility in Warren while Detroit has passed rigorous restrictions on cellular tower siting as well.

Companies have spent millions of dollars on architectural and engineering design studies only to be stymied by small, determined groups of local opponents. These companies ought to have allocated funds to develop information outreach programs for communicating to their key publics and such controversies could have been avoided.

Faced with the most serious public relations challenge in decades, some companies are headed for trouble, but others have seized the initiative by implementing effective communications programs directed at their key publics. Thanks to recently enacted federal legislation, regulatory officials, legislators, community residents, employees and the media have a greatly increased ability to scrutinize the operations of American industry across the board.

Sometimes they don't like what they see - or think they see.

As a result, good business sense -- as well as a series of legislative mandates -- all dictate that forward-looking managers should have a detailed communications plan in place to inform their key publics in the event of a real or perceived controversy or emergency situation. What few realize, however, is that even without an emergency, effective communications can resolve issues before they assume the proportions of confrontation and crisis.

The Impact of Change

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 has had far-ranging implications that can severely impact telecommunications companies seeking to expand their capabilities. And PCS tower siting has the greatest inherent potential for becoming just such a controversy given the current regulatory climate. Due to radical increases in applications for PCS tower siting permits, many local communities have initiated procedures that will result in the adoption of ordinances designed to rigidly regulate PCS tower design and placement.

Sometimes, such community groups have a congenital hostility toward companies that seek siting approval. For example, in Medina, WA, City Attorney Kirk Wines represented a group of private citizens and neighborhood coalitions fighting to keep what they regarded as 'unsightly' cell towers out of their 'back yards.' With the popular support of these groups, Wines successfully defended the community's cell site moratorium in the first case filed under the

Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Local communities throughout the nation have begun to exercise their clout through legislative agendas aimed at restricting PCS tower construction in residential areas. The prospect of siting PCS towers in such areas has produced growing opposition from locals and has generated strong support for bills regulating related activities. Such legislation would expand local control over telecommunications facilities siting that would prove inefficient and unrealistic considering the need for a statewide approach.

The implications of such legislation as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 are far ranging; but perhaps most compelling of all is the associated need for effective communications in our high-tech environment. In this age of heightened community awareness and activism where controversial issues such as PCS tower siting are at stake, companies must be acutely aware of the unprecedented need for them to communicate clearly and effectively with their key publics.

Community Concerns Mandate Communications

With community activism clearly on the rise, there is an ever-present potential for increasingly-stringent government regulation as well as more litigation by citizens' groups which perceive themselves as being victimized by insensitive corporate entities out to pollute back-yard landscapes with gangly and potentially hazardous structures. Tongue-tied corporate managers in such circumstances should expect the worst from the public because they deserve it.

Confronted by the realization that community awareness is rapidly - and radically - changing the way companies can conduct business today, American industry must adopt a policy of openness in order to win public support. Corporate managers must realize that a suspicious or aroused public can literally put them out of business. Because the public profoundly distrusts corporate secrecy, especially where potential - or perceived - hazards may exist, savvy managers are turning to communications professionals for help.

It is the task of such professionals to develop proactive communications programs in response to community concerns as well as build strategic alliances with local governments, the media and the public at large. Given the interminable plethora of issues involved in corporate operations in general, the message in the bottle is crystal clear: Leave it to the professionals.

Legions of Legislative Acts

The unprecedented level of disclosure of information to communities et. al. mandated under specific sections, sub-sections and sub/sub-sections of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- as well as whole legions of legislative pronouncements engendered by a veritable alphabet soup of government agencies - has created wholesale community concerns regarding potential health problems that might occur as a result of living near a PCS tower. Real or perceived health problems aside, yet another pet consideration fancied by the public addresses the issue of aesthetics: what for wont of other terminology could be called the obvious - albeit perceived -- unsightliness of such structures and their effect on adjacent property values. The thought of any health or property devaluation risk creates questions and real concerns on the part of the public.

Situations such as this demand communication in order to allay these concerns and position any telecommunications company as a good corporate citizen in spite of wary neighbors.

As a result of such considerations, it makes good business sense for savvy corporate managers to establish lines of communication promoting dialogue with their local publics. This is the critical function of professional crisis communications practitioners. They can direct any enlightened corporation in implementing proactive methodologies designed to seize the initiative by inaugurating community outreach programs for local residents and media representatives.

Such professionals regularly conduct community acceptance assessment programs based on an incisive case-by-case analysis of the social, political, regulatory and physical/ecological aspects that can potentially impact a company's ability to profitably conduct business in a particular municipality.

Even more importantly, communications professionals can identify methods as well as key contacts with whom a given company needs to share vital information. Situations often occur when corporate managers are more than willing to impart relevant information to their key publics, but have difficulty in identifying media/community representatives with whom they should be interfacing. Communications professionals know who to contact and what to say as well as what not to say.

Company managers at the highest level must realize that they risk personal as well as organizational liability in the event of controversies that can easily be blown out of all proportion to the reality of the situation by hostile residents and media representatives. For as a result of federally mandated standards, there can be little doubt that actions brought under common law will become the most frequent legal actions not only on safety and health issues, but even on issues regarding the aesthetics of PCS tower siting.

For example, in the wake of the Sprint/Sprint PCS tower-siting controversy, the local [Mandarin, FL] city council enacted legislation (Section 656.1501) 'To minimize adverse visual and aesthetic impacts of communication towers through careful design, siting, landscape screening and innovative aesthetic mitigation.' 'Aesthetic mitigation?' As though local landscapes were museumed master artworks, aesthetics too must be taken into consideration by tower-siting planners. Thus, a wholly new nomenclature has intruded itself into the already murky linguistics of litigation. The shadowy issue of 'aesthetic mitigation,' as well as an infinity of other considerations, must be factored into the dynamics of PCS tower siting or any other corporate activity that involves health and environmental issues.

As detailed above, the litany of current and pending litigation involving PCS tower siting issues is daunting and growing exponentially by quantum leaps. But the point is not simply that such litigation exists at all; the point is that it will continue to escalate as communities become more familiar with the issues to which they are exposed by virtue of a media that can be either sympathetic or hostile depending on their perception of a telecommunication firm's corporate personality or culture.

Again, managers must take the initiative to become even more familiar with the panoply of complex issues associated with even the most innocuous of their corporate activities. They must anticipate public hostility regardless of the reality of a given situation and pursue an aggressively proactive outreach program to provide a veritable tsunami of information that their publics perceive themselves as needing. Strategic communications is the key to resolving knotty issues before they become insoluble crises.

Impact On Business

Corporate managers must be aware of the fact that whenever a company is linked to a negative story in the media, there is a definite possibility for the erosion of market share as well. Nobody wants to do business with a crooked company regardless of the commodity that that particular company purveys. And such an image could easily catastrophize the most conscientious corporation subjected to a negative media blitz resulting from erroneous information. In short, forward-thinking companies that expect to be in business tomorrow have no choice but to allocate resources for the communications/Public Relations function commensurate with the devastation that hostile publics can wreak on any company's bottom-line profitability.

Companies must portray themselves as sensitive to issues associated with PCS tower siting if they are to survive - let alone prosper - as a corporate entity in an increasingly competitive business environment. Through effective communications, companies can go beyond the letter of the law and position themselves and their telecommunications products and services in a responsible, reputable fashion; and by doing so, radically improve their respective images as concerned corporate citizens.


David L. Schultz is Account Manager with McKinney Advertising & Public Relations, Cleveland, OH where he is responsible for developing and implementing comprehensive environmental and contingency communications strategies for client companies. His previous positions have included Director of Technical Services with Proconsul Public Relations and Manager of Marketing Communications with Dix & Eaton Advertising. Respond by e-mail at: www.mckinneyad.com.