Traditionally, when conflicting interests lock horns over environmental issues, the resulting argument swiftly comes to be seen by both parties as a test of organizational muscle and machismo. Corporate interests are locked into their position; environmental activists take the opposite view; the two butt heads and push at each other until one side gives in or some outside arbiter announces a result that pleases nobody.

In such cases, the role of public relations professionals is to ensure that the war being waged in the courtrooms and the boardrooms is also fought to a standstill in the media, with representatives of both parties bombarding the media with position papers, statistics and warnings of the dire consequences for the community if the other side gains the upper hand.

In short, public relations in such cases has traditionally been a giant exercise in futility, its ultimate result Pyrrhic victory at best.

Increasingly, however, sophisticated businesses are coming to realize that such an approach leaves both corporate interests and the community bruised and bloodied, often creating a legacy of ill-will that smolders for years. Such companies are therefore more and more seeking to build consensus around such potentially controversial issues as landfill siting and waste disposal.

As a result, more and more public relations agencies are coming to see their role in the process differently. Rather than using their communications skills to do battle in the media, they are finding a more productive outlet for their talents in bringing the two sides of the argument together, helping each to understand the position and the motiva­tion of the other, and facilitating a process that leads to consensus.

"Historically, the response of most companies when a problem surfaces that involves outside constituencies has been to ignore it and hope it goes away, or to turn it over to some higher authority, usually the legal system," says Susan Schaefer Vandervoort, presi­dent of Minneapolis-based Schaefer-Vandervoort.Communications, a consulting firm that specializes in conflict resolution and one of only a handful of public relations profes­sionals to have taken the MIT-Harvard Public Dispute Program.

Vandervoort describes four ways in which people typically deal with conflict: the first is to avoid it; the second is to turn to a system of higher authority such as the legal sys­tem; the third is to employ a power based-system, under which the side with the greatest resources and most money will generally prevail over the other based on superior strength; the fourth is reconciliation.

Corporate interests, Vandervoort says, have traditionally taken a power-based approach because historically they have had greater power, in their ability to outspend and out-lobby their opponents (and because the cultural history of the west empha­sizes conflict and power). However, the growth of the environ mental, consumer and civil rights movements in the `60s and the ability of ordinary citizens to harness their grass roots strength and access the media have shifted the balance of power, and today such an approach can have damaging, even disastrous consequences.

"For the corporation, the outcomes of a collaborative process are long-term much more beneficial," she asserts. "The corporation gains in legitimacy and in authority. It also saves money, since it avoids costly legal fees. It minimizes the possibility of outright defeat that goes with taking its battle to the court. It develops alliances upon which it can build in the future. It gains in goodwill, and in credibility, which in the long-term will help it do business else­where. It may end up sacrificing one or two or three of the four fea­tures it wants for a project, but future projects will be easier to accomplish."

Motorola has been at the forefront of the corporate drift towards the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) approach. General counsel Richard Weise has spearheaded an effort designed at avoiding costly litigation wherever possible. The company forces all outside legal counsel to complete a form analyzing the potential for ADR whenever a case reaches a certain level of expenditure. The burden of proof is on the attorneys to show that ADR is not applicable.

Another organization that learned the value of consensus build­ing is Bonneville Power Administration of Portland, Ore. In the January-February 1993 edition of Harvard Business Review, its for­mer administrator, Peter T. Johnson, discussed the way in which the utility converted critical publics into useful consultants.

“Outsiders had a way of exerting influence whether I liked it or not," Johnson concedes. "I had no sooner arrived at BPA when the agency became the target of political, legal and even physi­cal threats from people outside the organization who had lost faith in BPA's ability to act without jeopardizing their interests. Those of us on the inside knew we were capable of making good decisions, and made every attempt to explain our reasoning.

"That was the problem. By first making decisions and then explaining them, we were essentially telling people that we knew what was good for them. Meanwhile, the people affected by our decisions were telling us in any way they could—lobbying to cur­tail BPA's authority, taking BPA to court, or aiming rifles at BPA surveyors—that the father-knows-best approach to decision mak­ing was completely unacceptable.

"Just when it began to seem that BPA was doomed to a future of litigation and hostility, we made an important discovery. We found that by inviting the public to participate in our decision-making process, our adversaries helped us make better decisions.... By lis­tening to people's concerns and soliciting their advice on how to reconcile vast differences of opinion.... our operations did not come to a screeching halt.... we gained authority and legitimacy, avoided costly lawsuits and political challenges, and arrived at cre­ative solutions to seemingly intractable problems."

Kenneth Kearns, a principal in the public affairs firm Kearns & West, based in Boston, is another expert in dispute resolution. "If you want to move forward," he says, "a court is probably not the best place to do that." He believes public relations counselors, because of their communications skills and because their job often involves listening and responding to critics of the corporation, are uniquely well suited to the facilitator's role.

Tom Preston, president of Kentucky public relations firm The Preston Group, agrees: "In the vast majority of crisis cases, we are involved in conflict resolution," he says. "Most crises involve conflicts, either exter­nal or internal, and as public relations peo­ple you quickly learn that it is important to be able to see both sides of the conflict, to understand the concerns of all parties. You learn the importance of seeking common ground."

The issue then becomes whether the public relations consultant is being hired as a paid advocate of the corporation—which is the typical PR role—or as a consensus builder. That's a question that concerns many practitioners who have been involved in the conflict resolu­tion process, including Paula Slimak, a senior associate at Cleveland's William Silverman & Co.

"For many PR professionals, whose traditional mission is to pro­mote the singular goals of one organization or client, consensus building may appear to conflict with that mission," she points out. "Just how do you advance your own position while trying to fit it into the so-called `greater good?' Can a solid, workable compro­mise be considered a `win' for your client?"

The answer appears to be that it can, if that is what the client wants. Kearns says that while the corporation generally picks up the tab for his services—because it is generally the party with the deepest pockets with the greatest interest in seeing the dispute resolved—he makes it clear from the onset that his real client is the process.

"One of the first things we do is counsel participants on how to work within the process, how to behave," he says. "We will provide that counsel to the corporation, but often we will also provide counsel to other participants, because it is in everyone's interests for negotiations to go smoothly."

He concedes that it is often initially difficult to convince other participants, particularly activist groups, that his part in the process is neutral, but he says that in most cases credibility is quickly achieved if the facilitator does not play favorites and makes sure all parties get an equal opportunity to have their say.

Preston, on the other hand, says he never stops being an advo­cate for his client. It is necessary, he says, to balance the need to help the corporation articulate its point of view as clearly as possi­ble with the need to be seen as an impartial observer, but the PR firm must believe in the legitimacy of its client's objectives.

At the core of most disputes, Preston says, is the simple fact that the parties generally do not understand one another. They do not understand what motivates their opponents and in many cases they may never have even listened to their opponents' point of view.

"We have to help our client understand the psyche of their opponents, where they are coming from," he says. "We need to gather intelligence on critics of the company that will shed light on their motivation and their concerns."

Often, this lack of communication occurs not only between natural adversaries but between corporations and government regulatory bodies.

"We have been working for the chief executives of a number of electric utilities," Kearns says. "Helping them work together with their local public utilities commis­sions. It's alarming how little communica­tion there had been between these two groups, how little understanding there was of each other's needs. And it was surprising what a wide range of agreement there was when they actually sat down together."

Conceptually, Kearns says, the conflict resolution process is "not much more difficult than listening to what the other guy has to say." However, making that happen is often considerably more complicated than it sounds, particularly in cases where there is a history of adversarial proceedings, and so disciplined, structured process is often necessary to bring parties together around a table. 

Vandervoort describes three distinct parts of the process: proce­dural, which involves finding a facilitator who is acceptable to all parties and setting the ground rules for each meeting; sub­stantive, which involves discussion of all the research and data that applies; and emotional, which involves the relationships between the parties involved, their sometimes different values, their fears and needs.

"The emotional phase is what takes up most of the time," she says. "Sometimes the role of facilitator is like that of a psychothera­pist. It's a matter of listening to the concerns of the various parties and making sure everyone understands what those concerns are and what the reasons for them are."

Often, she says, the needs of community residents are likely to be expressed in very basic, emotional terms: "We want to feel safe." The obstacles to that end are likely to be equally elemental: "We don't trust you. We think you're a bunch of crooks and liars." This is the point at which the process breaks down, Vandervoort warns, unless the corporation is ready to hear this point of view and to understand what fuels it.

Kearns, on the other hand, prefers to start with the substantive issues. Often, he points out, the two sides in a dispute come to the table with their own data. Typically, the corporate data show that everything is working wonderfully, while the activists' data show that the local environment is suffering irreparable harm. It is sometimes necessary to commission inde­pendent research that produces data that are acceptable to both parties.

"We did work with one electric utility that needed to establish how much electricity it would need to generate over the next 20 years, and then find the most efficient way of generating the electric­ity. An environmental group was very concerned about the implica­tions of that decision. The company agreed to pay for a independent consultant to do the calculations, but that involved opening its books to its opponents in a way it would not have considered previously. This whole process demands a high degree of openness."

Depending on the number of participants and the diversity of viewpoints, Kearns says, the process can involve a series of one-on­-one meetings, focus groups, or bringing all the parties together around one table. Such an approach can be unwieldy, but it can yield tremendous results as bonds form between various parties. (In addi­tion to everything else, mediators need to be students of group dynamics.)

Susan Vandervoort recalls one program she worked on in northern Minnesota in which the parties represented included: local representatives of Greenpeace, science professors from the local college, students, a neighborhood association, a group of artists, the city council, the local Environmental Protection Agency, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and a lone individual whom she describes as a "zealot."

Initially, she says, the students, the artists and the zealot were skep­tical of the process, and refused to participate, preferring traditional confrontational tactics such as picketing and protests. However, as the group made progress, the science professors prevailed upon the students to join in, the artists followed, and eventually the zealot—a neighborhood resident—also became part of the process.

"The zealot came to the meeting and basically tried to disrupt the whole process," she recalls. "When it looked like a resolution was near, he literally stood up on the table and told everyone they were selling out."

Throughout all this, Vandervoort says, she told the company that it should continue to invite this individual to the table, to be part of the process: advice the company was not necessarily comfort­able with. Eventually, that approach paid off, however. Ultimately, the other community and environmental groups asked the zealot to leave the process, and an agreement was ham­mered out.

Kenneth Kearns has had similar experiences: "You have to rec­ognize that there are some people, on both the corporate and activist side, who are never going to get on board," he says. "There are some people who are never going to change their opinions. What you have to do is work to build as broad a consensus as pos­sible, get as many groups as you can together around a center and isolate the extremes."

Tom Preston divides participants in the process into several cat­egories: advocates,activists, idealists, dissidents or extremists. "Advocates are usually not as impractical as idealists and certain­ly not as militant as activists," he says. "Dissidents are found with a chip on their shoulders, while extremists and zealots are so fanati­cal they have a single-minded approach to the issue in debate and much more militant than activists."

Activists, he says, are genuinely concerned, and also tend to be educated and articulate. While they can be less than honest in pub­lic attacks on their adversaries, but they are open to reason argu­ment and settlement through dialogue. In dealing with zealots, however, it may be impossible to find accord.

Finally, there are questions about the degree to which the process itself—and the results of the process—should be publicized to a wider audience. The answer to those questions is likely to dif­fer on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, the temptation to play to the media gallery may be too much for some parties to resist, resulting in intransigence or exhibitionism; in other circumstances, public pressure for a workable compromise can force even hostile parties to behave responsibly.

"The major problem is that the news media might turn up its collective nose when one-time angry publics turn off the heat as the process extinguishes the flames," says Paula Slimak of William Silverman & Co. "Process stories are generally non-stories to the news media unless there is conflict."

Slimak believes that proactive communication is essential, since wider publics must eventually buy into the solution if it is to work, and suggests a series of ways in which external communication can help the process, from drafting a mission statement to demonstrat­ing that the process is making progress.

Vandervoort concedes that there are occasions on which the conflict resolution approach does not work. She has had one client who "buckled" halfway through the process and decided not to proceed with the project in question; she has worked with another who saw the process through but still was unable to persuade the community to accept the project it proposed.

"Conflict resolution and consensus-building is going to have to become part of the culture of every business in America," Vandervoort says. "If current trends continue, it is going to be the only way to accomplish controversial objectives."