School development proposals and the court of public opinion

I’d like to introduce you to an old friend of mine. His name is Mervyn Sprogg and he lives fairly close to your school. You may even have seen him walking his poodle past your drop-off area, grumbling about “all these cars blocking the street!”

Here’s the thing about Mervyn: he is commonly a retired accountant, solicitor or public servant who is pretty cluey when it comes to getting his voice heard. Post retirement, I suspect Mervyn is a bit bored – he was never into golf or lawn bowls, but he loves a fiery local council meeting and is a prodigious writer of letters to the editor.

Mervyn was recently introduced to Facebook and quickly discovered that its real joy lies in the power to stir things up and spruik his often ill-informed opinions on any issue he chooses.

Here’s the other thing about Mervyn: he is possibly the greatest challenge you will face if your school is considering some form of building development. Yep, more powerful than the mayor, local politicians, the planning authorities or even the media.

So, you need to understand the mindset of the Mervyn Sproggs of this world. In saying that, I want to be clear on one important point: the objective is not to get Mervyn to actively support your building redevelopment; it is simply about limiting his capability to destroy your chances of gaining approval for your development application without ending up in an unholy row with your neighbours (and receiving a lot of adverse publicity in the process).

Apart from the Mervyns, another factor is that many independent schools were established at a time when a future need for additional buildings, swimming pools and labs wasn’t even envisaged, and in suburbs that have become quite prosperous. These schools now tend to be surrounded by people with a bit of money (like Mervyn) who are professionally successful, smart, motivated and used to getting their own way – especially if they perceive their interests are under threat. (These same people tend to ignore the fact that the school was built long before they built or purchased their house!)

Based on my experience of helping clients successfully navigate the nightmarish scenario of school development proposals turning into a practical and PR disaster, here are some of my tips for nullifying the ‘Mervyn factor’.

  1. Know your enemy. Identify the likely issues upon which the Mervyns of this world are going to prosecute the case against you in the court of public opinion.
  2. Take account of these likely objections when you brief  the architect. Don’t wait till the end of the design process to work out how to ‘sell’ decisions that have already been made.
  3. Learn from the experience of others. Spend a little time investigating how other planning applications have been received in the community. What are the concerns that most worry local ratepayers right now?
  4. Build your stakeholder relations strategy at the same time that you are working with your architect and planning consultants.
  5. Identify and access the key decision-makers early, explaining your plans and giving them the ammunition to fire back at the ill-informed missives from Mervyn.
  6. Consider the timing of your application to council or when you intend to go public with your plans. Try to avoid lodging a potentially sensitive planning application in the lead-up to council elections. If Mervyn decides he wants to win himself a seat on council, the chance to become a hero by running a campaign against your ‘outrageous’ proposal is manna from heaven.
  7. Be aware that it will ultimately be impossible to get everyone in the community on side. The key requirement of winning a case in the court of public opinion is convincing the group I like to refer to as ‘the reasonable majority’. As long as you have proactive communication that addresses their likely concerns, you are in the best position to succeed – no matter what mud Mervyn throws.
  8. Consider being proactive and approaching the news media early. Far better they hear about the development direct from you, including its positive outcomes, rather than the contorted, misinformed and negative version they’ll get from Mervyn’s ‘Stop the School’ Facebook group. I had one client for whom the core issue was an identified sensitivity about some 100 year old trees on the school site, which were much loved by the local community. The development was announced in the paper with a front page picture of the Principal and some students standing under one of these trees, highlighting the fact that the development would showcase their magnificence.
  9. Make use of your greatest resource: your own school community. After all, it is the parents whose students are most likely to benefit from upgraded facilities and, very often, a significant number of them will live locally so have every right to have their say on Facebook or write a letter to the local paper.

What I’ve presented here are high level principles – there is no substitute for a structured plan when it comes to ensuring you win the game against Mervyn Sprogg.

Poor old Mervyn; maybe one day he’ll realise golf isn’t that bad after all. 

John Le Cras has nearly 40 years’ experience in journalism, public relations, marketing and corporate executive roles. John launched his own consulting firm in 2011 and works extensively in issue management and crisis communication in the private school sector.

John Le Cras

enewsletter sign up

Get the latest marketing news. It’s free!