Curtin&Co - the persuaders
PR Consultants for Forest Holidays
In January 2016 we heard the news that Forest Holidays (FH) and the Forestry Commission (FC) were preparing another application for a holiday camp in Fineshade Woods, but this time they would be employing a London-based PR company to carry out a "community consultation".
Curtin&Co work for the development industry and they claim that they "use a proven methodology that has won successful planning consents for over 20 years".
We wondered what this community consultation would be like in practice, so decided to do some research about the company, and about their methods of persuasion.
The company's website
A look at the PR company’s website is so re-assuring! There we read that:
“planning should happen with people; not to them”. Great! FC and FH certainly need to take note of that.
The site goes on: “through genuine engagement and consultation many issues can be overcome and compromises found. Who knows an area better than the people who live there? Having local input can be the most valuable tool in creating an excellent development and lasting legacy."
As you'd expect there's a page showing the Curtin&Co team and a page of endorsements from grateful developers: most of them managed to get their way and created housing developments. Renting out part of the Public Forest Estate for luxury cabins in order to create a bit of income for the FC is not really in the same as league as finding somewhere to build much-needed housing, but no doubt Curtin&Co can turn their hand to holiday camps, can't they?
What do these fine words on the website mean in practice?
The founder's book reviewed
What better place to find more details of how Curtin&Co operate than in the book written by Tom Curtin, the company’s founder? It’s available on Amazon with the most recent version costing up to £36.
Managing Green Issues, Tom Curtin, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-230-50003-7. First edition 2000, Second Edition 2007
After the fine words of the website the Amazon book reviews seem to offer a rather less reassuring picture of the underlying principles of Curtin&Co. Here are two examples of reviews:
Public relations advice for environmental polluters
Tom Curtin outlines a strategy for communicating to the public about green issues, providing sensible guidelines for analyzing your business and preparing for potential eco-crises.
Curtin is an environmental skeptic. He doesn't believe in global warming and he considers green organizations to be gathering places for hysterics. He doesn't seem to be aware that preserving the environment is a major concern for people around the world…
A PR hack's view of green issues
It would have been more informative to call this book "How To Deal with Protestors Who Think That Green Issues Matter On Behalf Of Companies That Don't". Green issues (e.g. global warming, recycling) are only ever discussed in negative terms. A great deal of space is devoted to explaining how to handle public discontent by isolating those who take the lead in criticising companies for their lack of concern with green issues. It is also explained how companies can shield themselves from possibly damaging public exposure. Let the public speak, but only in ways controlled by corporate interests. If you are intending to make money while ignoring the environmental consequences of your actions and you want some tips on how to deal with critics then I suppose this is the book for you
The book - our notes
So, eager to know more, a couple of the Friends of Fineshade read the book. Here are their notes:
This is a book for developers but also provides essential reading for people facing developments that threaten the environment.
Curtin labels people as “supporters and opposers” and he repeatedly advises developers to isolate and ignore the opposers. He believes those in favour of schemes are the real majority: they tend to be folk unaffected or who don't care one way or t'other so they're easier to 'convert'. Divide and rule seems to sum up his way of working.
Key points include ignoring established protest groups, 'a lost cause and diversion'. His advice is to go straight for persuading politicians, councillors and MPs. Timing is crucial here. Are these representatives of the people about to face re-election or are they 'safe'?
Seek out supporters, most especially 'third party advocates' and any local 'movers and shakers' who are likely to favour development. Advice on how to find such people in an unknown geographical area includes sending staff to trawl newspapers in local libraries to gather names of people who have expressed support for development; they often know persuadable others.
Leafleting ('Dear Resident') is covered: both its strengths and weaknesses. Mass media marketing of any development, including using the web is vital. Strategies are described for changing people's minds, though not those of the hard-core protesters already ignored.
Curtin says that some opposers will change their minds given time and facts. Well chosen facts are good, because it’s rare for opposers to have the knowledge to understand or to counter scientific/technical data.
People can be persuaded to support development in exchange for a community gain - a kind of inducement or sweetener. Changing minds and perceptions is accomplished by time, negotiation and compromise, often requiring a tangible benefit like a new road or perhaps as little as a community notice board.
Educated middle-class 'nimbys' are said to use environmental concerns to make issues where there should be none. They can for example use the slightest pretext like 'newts' to oppose development.
There’s chapters about public consultation and managing public meetings. The latter are best avoided entirely, but if they are necessary they should be managed by the PR consultants not their clients.There’s a warning that opposition groups are also "PR organisations" and are usually skilled and committed too.
"Managing green issues"? - a sneer for anything green permeates the book!
FINE WORDS ON THE WEBSITE
"Planning should happen with people; not to them."
"Who knows an area better than the people who live there?"
CRITICAL REVIEWS ON AMAZON
"He doesn't seem to be aware that preserving the environment is a major concern for people around the world"
"Green issues (e.g. global warming, recycling) are only ever discussed in negative terms."
"Let the public speak, but only in ways controlled by corporate interests"
"Planning should happen with people; not to them."
- but if they oppose the development, ignore them
"Managing green issues"? - a sneer for anything green permeates this book!"
Examples of Curtin&Co's persuasion
Mindful of the website’s claim that “Planning should happen with people; not to them”, we next looked at two recent PR campaigns where Curtin&Co persuasion techniques were used on behalf of developers. In both cases their case officer appears to have been Dave Shetcliffe (23), the man chosen to give Fineshade the Curtin treatment.
1) Residential development
Firstly there was Thanington Park, a large residential development in Canterbury, Kent. See the website set up by Curtin&Co
The public part of the community consultation was that Pentland Properties invited Canterbury residents to attend a two-day public exhibition at which members of the project team were on hand to answer questions. Details of the proposals were shown on 10 exhibition boards. What individual lobbying of politicians, councilors and MPs took place behind the scenes, Curtin’s stock-in-trade, is unknown.
The planning application was eventually granted planning approval when the developer made a series of offers, particularly to provide a new hospice building and spend large amounts on improving transport links. See planning website here.
278 comments had been received many from objectors but also including much support because of the proposed new hospice. But objectors were particularly scathing of the role of Curtin&Co. Two examples are here:
Curtin & co analysis does not ask the public if they believe these proposals are right for this particular green field site. They are broad and ask about 'Canterbury' in general terms and at best only 30% agree to many of their questions.
Pentland’s misleading publicity says” 'From the consultation exercises it has become evident that the majority of local residents welcome the redevelopment of this site and were very positive about Pentland Properties Ltd's proposals'. This is untrue there are very few local residents in favour of this catastrophic development of an area of outstanding natural beauty. …To state that local residents are ambivalent to the proposals is extremely insulting and untrue.
These people do not seem to have appreciated Curtins’ lauded “genuine engagement and consultation”: but perhaps they were thought to be members of protest groups and therefore ignored, the techique recommended in Curtin's book.
2) Hotel in conservation area
A second example is the redevelopment of Tower Bridge Magistrates Court, a listed building, to create a large hotel in a Conservation Area in central London.
Again a two-day exhibition was staged with members of the project team on hand to answer questions. Attendees were given the opportunity to view exhibition boards and look around the site. At the time of writing, Southwark Council’s decision is pending. See their planning website.
Here local feeling appears to have been mainly hostile as there were few discernable benefits to members of the local community, many of whose properties would be overshadowed by the proposed new building.
Once again Curtin&Co’s methods were specifically criticized, this time in great detail. (It's well worth reading the persuasion techniques used here.)
It is my opinion that consultation on this proposed development has been unsatisfactory. It has been superficial and has avoided detailed conversation with those most affected at neighbouring properties. The Curtin & Co. report reaches a conclusion that is based purely on supposition and not at all on fact. Curtin & Co's report sets out a chronology of the consultation. It starts in September 2014 yet it was 6 months before discussions started with one of the bodies representing 1 group of neighbouring home owners. There has been an inconsistent approach to dialogue with the bodies representing the 4 most seriously affected groups of homes. This has ranged from multiple meetings with 1 body to none with another. It was 10 months before the developer met with the representatives of 3-17a Queen Elizabeth Street and Candishe House. That was less than 1 month before the planning application was submitted and too late to have any substantive dialogue. The meeting comprised of a one way delivery of information and was not a consultation. One question of considerable significance was asked, about the re-siting of 2 principle entrances from Boss Street to Queen Elizabeth Street, and an answer was promised within a week. More than 2 months later and with the planning application submitted the question remains unanswered. This question is now the subject of a Freedom of Information request and should be answered before any decision is taken by Southwark. Much is made of the public exhibition and the resulting feedback. In fact Curtin & Co’s statement is almost entirely taken up with a description of the exhibition with merely a few lines on community involvement. Drawing such firm conclusions, as it does, from such a highly speculative source is unreasonable and irresponsible. There is no sound statistical or credible market research basis for the support that is implied. The report would only be credible if it presented information from meetings with residents groups to balance the unscientific survey conclusions.
And yet Curtin&Co espouse the view that “Planning should happen with people; not to them”!
It appears that this is pure PR spin - what a surprise!
"this is untrue - there are very few local residents in favour... To state that local resdients are ambivalent ... is extrememly insulting and untrue"
"Consultation... has been superficial and has avoided detailed conversation with those most affected at neighbouring properties."
So these are the persuaders - and a bit of research showed the tactics we could expect.
Forest Holidays, beaten and out-manoevred in their previous applications, were paying this PR firm to do what they themselves failed to do - persuade the elected representatives of East Northants not to listen to those who have elected them.
And what of the Forestry Commission? Alarmed at the threat to their reputation caused by FH's tactics, did they really think that this PR company would solve their reputational problems if they tried to lease out this much-loved part of the Public Forest Estate?
Position at January 2017
No more was heard of the Curtin@Co consultation after the summer of 2016. One really wonders what feedback the PR company gave to their clients. Taking what the company say about themselves at face value, perhaps we can assume that they did indeed pass on the advice that Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission would fail to win any local support if they tried another application for development in Fineshade Wood.
By the beginning of 2017 the Forest Holidays logo was no longer displayed on the list of Curtin@Co's clients.