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Public Input as a Commodity

"The title of the article captures it all: "Cultivate grass roots to build support for project" "That's right. Development companies should co-opt the community involvement process, local leadership, the social network, and local culture to "market" their properties to us, or at the very least, create acceptance of their presence in the community.
I love the Puget Sound Business Journal. Every I time a pick up a copy, I learn more about the business dealings of the people who pull the strings, then I do in a week's worth of dailies. I might foot the 88 bucks for a subscription, since getting a copy often means going to the Pike Place Market, Elliot Bay Books, or some other place in the financial district. It's articles like these that keep me hooked: "Some local developers are increasingly looking to alternative, relationship-based communication techniques that are far too often overlooked when it comes to marketing urban residential projects. "These grass roots-style communication channels can earn developers a greater degree of exposure at far less cost than traditional project-marketing models. Better yet, they tend to be much more sustainable, largely due to the trust that comes from forging relationships. Three techniques utilized by developers today are: community involvement, specialized direct marketing and guerrilla marketing." Okay, we'll back up for a minute. This article is written by Emiko Baldown, who is the marketing director at Harbor Properties here in town. The title of the article captures it all: "Cultivate grass roots to build support for project" That's right. Development companies should co-opt the community involvement process, local leadership, the social network, and local culture to "market" their properties to us, or at the very least, create acceptance of their presence in the community. Baldowin continues: "Creative direct marketing is another technique that can help developers communicate directly with neighbors and engender positive responses. Instead of sending promotional materials to a list of "cold" prospects within a certain scientific demographic, some developers are now taking a more specialized approach. "This involves targeting a very limited number of people by identifying the information sources that ultimately influence the community, such as local blogs, social-networking sites and residents who are passionate about the neighborhood. This is especially true in younger urban areas of Seattle, which tend to resist overt marketing and respond more favorably to "buzz marketing" approaches. "A prime example is when a local development firm, seeking community-based support for a project in the hip Capitol Hill neighborhood, created a multi-tiered marketing strategy based on this premise. It started with a mailer that contained steely, industrial-style magnets that spelled out the name of the proposed residential project -- although it wasn't clear at that time. The mailer was sent to small group of local influencers ranging from baristas and hairdressers to club owners and restaurateurs. The next mailer in the teaser campaign included a T-shirt with the project name in an edgy logo design. "The campaign, designed to get people talking about the possible origin and meaning of these messages, was created to position the project as authentic to the community. The developer wanted to avoid materials that could be perceived as phony and capitalistic by its target audience. These are a modification of tactics that have are used by social change activists. First, identify the leadership and the opinion makers, on all fronts--socially, culturally and politically in the community. Create trust and fellowship with that element of the community. In turn, the opinion makers in the neighborhood will generate the discussion and the framework of debate, and direction of movement. Over the past 20 years, the public relations and human resource industries have figured out how to monkey with this natural collective self-defense process to advance their goals, but there is another consequence; it undermines self determination of a community. It undermines effective public participation. That is, when a community is unaware of this process unfolding. A company that can put people on the payroll, has infinite resources, and can replace the community in the real public process is positioned rather well. They can place themselves between the community and the part of government that can be influenced by community. The article continues: "The street-smart communication approach worked. When the developers began to make personal visits to shops and community hangouts to start dialogue about the project, they noticed a number of residents were already wearing the T-shirts. They also overheard conversations in coffee shops and on the streets about what the magnet mailers might represent." Other strategies of involvement are mentioned: "The company decided the best way to reach this population was to interact with them directly to get their input on design, amenities and other elements...A young employee charged with forging these relationships visited game rooms, bars and other hangouts and talked with these expatriates about the developer's plans to create a project in the University District neighborhood. Importantly, she did not pretend to be someone she was not. The employee got many of the students involved, and their input was taken back to designers to consider in the development..." And: "Although it can be more time-intensive, it's important for developers to become truly active in the neighborhoods they're doing business in. Some ideas include sitting on neighborhood association boards, getting intimately involved in fundraising events for local charities, and volunteering time and other resources to the local YMCA, Chamber of Commerce or other community-based organizations." Okay, so one can rationalize and say, "what is wrong with developers acting like human beings for once?" That's not the objection here. When a developer, or any company puts someone on the payroll, and their main goal is to gain the acceptance of, or market a development project through a manipulation of the social network, and this basic fact is not apparent--it can't be if it is to work, then it becomes a classic PR strategy. Technically not overt lying, but the eliciting of an assumption about things by omission. The developer is off the hook morally, because the "people" misled themselves, even if it is for only a brief time. What's more is that if this is the channel through which the community is encouraged to participate, it undermines the meager processes available to promote their own interest. People who have serious concerns in the company's process have to spend social capital, especially if one is in the minority, to voice those concerns, let alone act as an effective minority. A choice is given; participate in this very comfortable informal process that will appear to potentially have results, or participate in a more complex process dealing with an institution few people trust (the government) that requires much more work, and perhaps conflict. If a community is already taxed (figuratively) because of other issues--crime, or poverty, pollution, or being at the business end of continual bad policy, the choice might be: participate in the marketing process communicated through the community's culture or organizations, where it feels like there might be some chance of influence, or gamble, and hope one has the resources to mobilize people to go to more public hearings in shiny buildings during working hours with $20 parking (or hit the streets, if necessary) It's not much of a real choice. The other problem with the marketing strategy is that it couches itself as community participation. But like the "team meeting" in the workplace, the primary function is to make things easier and more efficient for those in control. In all reality, the decision making process is "privatized" and if the community hasn't accepted the corporate process, then guess what? The deadlines on the other remedies through government agencies have expired, or are too close to effectively build a case and a movement around. As long as the community temporarily accepts this marketing as the public input process, they have temporarily given their power away, when it matters the most. This kind of commodification of public input has been used for a long time, and we will see more of it, as pissed off activists seek to put a stop to certain types of development. It certainly isn't limited to condo developers or even retail or industrial developers. One thing is for certain; it's hard to take a companies face value in the community, when the community is all about targets. No one wants to be a target. As government continues to shut people out of process, the above marketing strategy becomes more appealing. Voila. A privatized public input process. (note: if the original link for the article disappears, the original is in the December 14th issue of the Puget Sound Business Journal; try the library, or try Google.)

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