Credit: Associated Press

Citizens protesting the Lynas Corp. mining project (Image credit: Associated Press)

Here’s some required reading for those of you in industries that tend to incite community opposition, namely transportation, construction, and real estate.

The Wall Street Journal article linked here tells the story of a 64 year old math teacher who is running PR circles around a $1 billion mining company.

Lynas Corp. is seeking to open a minerals refinery in Malaysia.  But retired teacher Tan Bun Teet and other tech-savvy activists have brought construction to a halt through an aggressive, web-based PR campaign designed to highlight the mining project’s environmental impact.  Their group, called Save Malaysia Stop Lynas, combines social media, traditional media outreach, and citizen protests to influence public opinion.  The campaign prompted the Malaysian government to delay issuing an operating permit by more than year, prompting a 42 percent decline in Lynas’s share value.  No less than the Lynas CEO has publicly stated that he underestimated the activists’ determination and PR savvy.

This is an all too common scenario here in the U.S as well. Deep pocketed companies routinely get outfoxed on the PR front by underfunded, but determined citizen groups.  Why? Partly because journalists view outmanned citizen activists who speak to truth to power as more sympathetic characters than big companies. Fair or not, it’s reality.

At Campfire, we just ran communications strategy for a real estate developer who faced stiff community opposition to a $200 million proposed development near Baltimore. To our client’s credit, they recognized early that elected officials with oversight for the project would be very sensitive to public opinion. The more we could neutralize opponents and build community support for the project, the more likely we were to gain government approval. We focused heavily on media outreach, coalition building, and advertising.  Sure enough, our client won.

If you’re in an industry that tends to create controversy, think about how public relations can help you achieve your goals. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, “an ounce of PR is worth a pound of litigation.” The earlier to seek to sway public sentiment in your favor, the more likely you are to avoid ugly battles in the court of law and the court of public opinion.