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Shel Horowitz: How to influence public officials on environmental issues

As both a marketing consultant and environmental activist, I’m accustomed to writing or presenting words that convince the public to change their positions — or their brands — and to take action based on my writing or speaking.

To do this, I will use my powers of persuasion and a wide range of language aimed at moving different types of people forward toward a common agenda. My arguments will typically be a mix of emotion and intellect, of appeals to self-interest and appeals to the common good.

But I’ve learned over the years that when the goal is influencing public officials, the rules and strategies are different.

For one thing, when government officials take testimony on an issue, they typically have a very narrow scope. In fact, they’re often not even allowed to consider anything outside their purview (this is one of the reasons why change involving action by government enforcement agencies or getting new laws passed can be frustratingly slow). So big, sweeping appeals along broad issues have little effect.

Last month, I wanted to weigh in before a government body on one of those big-picture issues. I submitted testimony to a Vermont government agency on whether it should issue a certain permit to a nuclear power plant. I wanted to address the much wider issue of nuclear power plant safety — but I had to do it within the narrow confines of what the board could address.

I think my testimony (posted at http://shelhorowitz.com/go/nucleartestimony/) offers an instructive example of how to influence governments:

1. Establish credentials — why it’s your right to give testimony. Right at the beginning, I note that I’ve written three relevant books, which is especially important since I’m not a resident of the state where the plant is located. Credentials don’t have to be formal, though. Yours might be “resident within the evacuation zone” or “parent of a special-needs child.”

2. Focus on the issue the agency can act on. The hearing was about whether the state should grant the nuke a new Certificate of Public Good. So very early, I looked at what it means to provide public good, and then I referred back to this concept several times, including the last sentence.

3. Use an objective-sounding, intelligent tone. Not the time for screaming hype or unsubstantiated accusations.

4. Respect the knowledge and intelligence of those you are testifying before. Notice that I didn’t explain the Price-Anderson Act; I simply referenced it with an “as you know.”

5. Provide a framework for addressing the wider issues. By U.S. federal law, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has jurisdiction over the safety of nuclear power plants. But the state of Vermont can take economic factors into account when evaluating whether the plant serves a public good — so I anchored all my safety arguments in their impact on the state’s economy and overtly stated that this is why I was bringing up the safety issues.

6. Back up your claims and cite sources. I cite three books, the plant’s own accident report, one third-party scientific report and two top-tier newspaper articles (from The New York Times and Washington Post).

7. Clearly state the desired action the agency should take, ideally quite early in your remarks. In this case, I want the Public Service Board to deny the Certificate of Public Good requested by Entergy, and I say so very specifically in the second sentence: “Like the majority of people who have come before you to testify, I ask that you deny the Certificate of Public Good for Entergy for the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.”

8. Use “social proof” — demonstrate that lots of people agree with you. Look again at the quote from my testimony in the previous paragraph: The first half of the sentence is all about social proof; the second half tells the board what I want them to do.

9. Be organized ahead of time, be conscious of time limits if speaking in person and be willing to provide your full, extended testimony in writing. I had an outline with me of points I could make within two minutes. It would not have been nearly as complete, but it would have hit the important points.

10. For maximum impact, make copies of your statement available to the media and to the public. My statement is published on my website, and thus my potential audience is a lot bigger than the three members of the Public Service Board.

Shel Horowitz, shel@greenandprofitable.com, is the primary author of “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green” (John Wiley & Sons).

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