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Is it Really a Hostile Community or is it a Community Reacting with Hostility?

In the context of community engagement, we’re sometimes asked how to deal with hostile communities. As with so many things, prevention is better than cure: it’s unlikely that the community was hostile before the issue was imposed on them. Rather, the community – or at least some members of it – are reacting with hostility.

So what do we mean by hostility, and are communities becoming more likely to react hostilely?

The most common components of hostility are cynicism and mistrust. Reciprocity is also a feature of hostility, which can result in escalating conflict, both in how people communicate and how we behave. Hostility is cognitive; that is, it’s about what we think rather than what we feel (angry) or how we behave (negatively). Of course, its behavior that is most visible and has the most impact on other people. Hostility can be contagious across a community when people share information infused with cynicism and mistrust, resulting in escalating anger and negative behaviors.

Even before the pandemic, a Gallup poll found that people in the US were experiencing increasing levels of stress, worry and anger. Anger can also be contagious, in what psychotherapist Aaron Balick calls ‘an anger-bandwagon effect: someone expresses it and this drives someone else to express it as well.’

We can’t leave social media out of this discussion as it is such an easy and instantaneous way to share both information and anger. Anger is a stimulant, and like any stimulant can be addictive so people look for reasons to be angry. We go online and down rabbit holes, getting angry about things happening in places we’ve never heard of, to people we’ve never met.
As community engagement professionals with the analytical tools we have access to, we can see that the reach of project information often goes far beyond our target audience. I once worked on a project in Australia where we received formal submissions from as far afield as Canada. This wasn’t because people in Canada were impacted, but because local residents shared the project through social networks along with a call to action, to object.

So how do we handle anger and hostility? At best, we can apologize and start again, attempting to rebuild trust and reach the planned outcomes of our project. At worst, the community becomes divided, hostility overcoming basic neighborhood decency and destroying relationships within the community as well as with us.

Let’s look at prevention first and then response.

Components of Outrage

You’ll be familiar with the importance of thorough stakeholder analysis and may already undertake risk and opportunity assessments as part of your engagement planning. Typically, a community engagement risk assessment should follow the organization’s overarching approach to risk assessment. This is likely to include elements such as danger to people and property, financial and reputational risks, and traditional time and budget project delivery risks. There is also the option of taking a positive slant looking not just at risks but also identifying opportunities for the project and engagement. You can then develop strategies to leverage those opportunities to maximize positive outcomes of the project while simultaneously mitigating risk.

There are two further steps you could take to bolster traditional engagement planning to reduce the risk of a hostile reception: social impact analysis (SIA) and outrage assessment.

Using a participatory social research approach often employed in development contexts, SIA can identify deeper, richer information about the community than a traditional stakeholder analysis. SIA includes the understanding that ‘social, economic and biophysical impacts are inherently and inextricably interconnected’. This lens helps us to view the community multi-dimensionally and to consider impacts that are:

  • intended and unintended
  • positive and negative
  • short term and residual

Extending from and dovetailing with thorough stakeholder and risk analysis, a rigorous SIA will open up more, and more meaningful, opportunities to mitigate potential negative impacts and leverage potential positive impacts.

Undertaking an outrage assessment will inform each of the above elements of strategic engagement planning. Peter Sandman is best known in community engagement circles for his expertise in responding to outrage (more on that later) but his 12 components of outrage are also an excellent tool for assessing the potential for outrage. Where that potential is found to be high, invest more in engaging early and sensitively.

Those components of outrage (you could assess them on a sliding scale between each of these absolutes) are:

  • voluntary / coerced
  • natural / industrial
  • familiar / exotic
  • memorable / not memorable
  • not dreaded / dreaded
  • chronic (ie slow moving) / catastrophic (ie sudden)
  • knowable / not knowable
  • controlled by self / controlled by others
  • fair / unfair
  • morally irrelevant / morally relevant
  • coming from a trustworthy source or proponent / untrustworthy source or proponent
  • responsive process / unresponsive process

Outrage assessment

Can you remember the first time you used the term ‘outrage’ with a project manager or other non-engagement professional? Did they think you were kidding? I clearly remember sitting down to discuss potential engagement strategies around changing the source of a community’s drinking water. The project manager laughed when I suggested we do an outrage assessment, he thought I was exaggerating. We were talking about the water coming from a different catchment – it would taste and smell different.
As we went through Sandman’s components of outrage in the context of a parent running a bath for a baby, or an elderly person filling the jug for a cuppa, my colleague stopped laughing and agreed to invest some time and effort into upfront engagement. This investment would easily offset cost to the customer service and media teams in dealing with the fallout if people had been left to notice the difference for themselves.

In spite of our best laid plans, we can still find ourselves engaging with a hostile community. Or possibly because of poorly made or executed plans, we’re asked to enter a project when a community is already hostile.

The outrage may look like:

  • the phones are ringing hot with complaints – they are also coming in by letter, email and at the front door; there’s a protest picketing outside the building or a sit-in starting inside the building
  • the media is calling for resignations
  • your online engagement platform is being swamped with what appear to be automated submissions
  • your scientific report is being held up next to photographs of something you’ve said isn’t happening
  • community members have started their own website, taking petitions door to door, leafleting the neighborhood and holding meetings in the park
  • another set of community members have done the same things but they are seeking the completely opposite outcome.

I could go on, but I expect most engagement professionals are already adding to the list and perhaps feeling triggered!

Empathy and minimizing hostility

It’s time to talk about response.

First, opt for maximum empathy. Chances are that if a project has resulted in outrage it’s because decision makers at some level have forgotten that the community is made up of human beings. It’s essential to remember and acknowledge this, both to ourselves and to our community. This should come from leaders in the organization as well as officers; it should come directly and personally, as well as through official statements.

Empathy is ‘implicated in many aspects of social cognition, notably prosocial behavior, morality and the regulation of aggression’. In other words, it’s an almost direct antidote to the cognitive trait of hostility and associated feelings of anger and antisocial behaviors.

Empathy isn’t just a useful response, it’s an appropriate one. The community really is human and there is no point undertaking whatever the project is if it does not ultimately serve humanity (including benefits to the environment as it is critical to the survival of humanity).

It’s now generally accepted that community outrage arising from organizational failures should be met with public acknowledgement of and apology for mistakes. This can be difficult to implement, however, where political careers are at stake or there is a perception that an apology equates to legal liability for all associated impacts. If this is an issue for you, go back to Sandman for further advice, including the observation that pretending something hasn’t happened isn’t a great defense.

On a simply practical level, consider the following actions:

  • Set up an internal working group; include representatives from, for example, the project team, your customer service people and media team. Share any new information with the group, problem solve with them and run planned actions past them before implementing.
  • Seek delegation of authority for decision-making to one executive and/or one elected member or board member. This will telescope approval processes to maximize agility.
  • Have a single spokesperson who can be the face of the organization with empathy and humility. In time, this person’s integrity and credibility will become established but empathy and humility must come first.
  • Provide daily updates to other internal stakeholders to reassure them, provide them with accurate information and leverage their knowledge of the community.
  • Have a single point of contact in your team or working group for all questions or ideas from the rest of the organization so that they can be triaged and appropriately responded to without slowing you down.
  • Establish a ‘single point of truth’ on your engagement project page. Keep this constantly updated and point everything else towards it (ie media, social media etc).
  • Work with your engagement platform provider/website hosting service to mitigate any risk of denial-of-service attacks.
  • Invite people in (in small groups – perhaps family groups, households – I’m not suggesting a town hall). Sit down and listen to them.
    Let them air their grievances without interrupting or judging.
  • Don’t even judge them amongst yourselves.

Consider your options for discontinuing the engagement.

Start thinking about how you’re going to interpret and report on the feedback you’re getting from photocopied submissions to flaming Facebook posts.

A further and ongoing element of response is the long-term undertaking to repair trust and rebuild relationships, both between the proponent and the community and within the community. This will take time and can only happen in an atmosphere of demonstrated integrity – follow through, close the loop, be present. Take a community development approach to communities where neighborly relationships have been damaged.

Hostility is unhealthy – for individuals and for communities. Evidence links hostility and trait anger to increased risk of cardiac disease morbidity and mortality. US non-profit organization The Borgen Project lists social hostility as one of the five critical global issues that are affecting the world in a catastrophic way.

Whatever our role or sector – engagement professionals, project managers, decision makers – we have a responsibility to minimize our impact and our potential to cause hostility. Let’s aim for prevention instead of response.