If you are a group facilitator in the Denver Metro Area who works on public policy or major environmental concerns you will eventually be denounced to the press. One of the parties at the table or the group he/she represents will decide that some action you have taken indicates your bias for another faction, or (more likely) that person will see some advantage in calling into question your neutrality. The precise motivation doesn’t matter (and you’ll probably be well aware of the motivation, anyway). You will have to deal with it when the press contacts you, or, in the present electronic news environment, when the press repeats the charge on line.
This happened to me when I was facilitating a long-term information exchange issues group relating to a proposed large crushed rock quarry. I was the neutral facilitator under contract to a county government to run the informational meetings. The proponent was a very wealthy landowner, and the opponents were nearly all well-to-do professionals. Each person at the table (totaling about 25, counting homeowners, consultants, attorneys, the county geologist, planners, etc.) was very passionate about the proposal (either “yea” or “nay”) and willing (and able) to do whatever it took to win. The group met about twice per month for nearly two years.
A leader of the group of opponents was a well-known attorney who had years of experience in tough business negotiations, and was always looking for leverage. As a neutral, I didn’t take actions giving him such leverage. So, I received a call from a newspaper reporter stating: “Attorney John Smith (obviously not his real name) says that you an agent for developers. What do you say?” It’s no secret that the press thrives on a high level of controversy – and group facilitators do not, especially when it involves them. The worst thing to do is to say you have no comment. We’ve all seen what is made of such statements by the press. So, what did I do?
Even though this was relatively early in my career, I had anticipated press contact about my work with the group and had already consulted with a colleague who had long years doing public process. She coached me in the use of the significant-sounding non-response: “I understand that people in the issues group will have opinions on how I do my job as facilitator and I have no way to control what those opinions are. I am simply doing my best to be a neutral and facilitate the ongoing discussions among all of the members of the group.”
This was not immediately satisfying to the reporter, but her further questions did not induce me to expand upon my statement. As I remember it, there was no resultant story in the newspaper, and Mr. Smith did not pursue the matter.
One of the strategies of opponents to public policy initiatives or major development activities is delay (more on the tactics of delay in a later article). Destruction of the credibility of the facilitator (with the resultant need to find another facilitator) and/or engagement of the facilitator in a very public fight with one faction at the table are recipes for delay. A facilitator must expect these tactics and be ready for them. Many such incidents may not end as cleanly as this one did.