Editor Note: This is the first in what I envision as an ongoing series of interviews with professionals whose insights can be valuable to those tasked with strategic communication and public relations. – S.G.

Dr. Marty Rozelle is President of The Rozelle Group Ltd., where she helps decision-makers and those who have a stake in a decision appreciate each other’s’ perspectives so they can create the best possible solution.

According to your website, you help build consensus around a particular issue. Can you give a few examples?

Sure, I facilitated a 25-member stakeholder group to achieve consensus on recommendations to the Texas Commission on the Environment on the health of the environmental flow regime for the San Antonio and Guadalupe Rivers, Bays and Estuaries system. The stakeholder group’s charge was to balance environmental flow recommendations with human needs. By developing a way for extremely technical scientific information to be understood by the mostly lay audience, the group was able to provide constructive input. The result was a consensus rule.

Another example was two waste-water reclamation projects for the cities of Glendale and Peoria, Arizona. The controversial projects required public involvement. I helped the community working group develop criteria for site selection based on what was most important to the community. In the end, final sites were selected based on how well they performed technically and on the values the public deemed most important. 

What is your background and how did you get into this line of work?

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and master’s in public administration. My first job was with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Atlanta, Georgia.

I found I really enjoyed working with city governments and took a job with the City of Scottsdale, Arizona, to help with the relocation of residents and businesses in two areas to make way for some planned developments.

After four years, I left to pursue a Ph.D.

In 1979, I joined an international engineering firm as the Public Involvement Coordinator for a big project to look at alternatives to a dam at the confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers. This dam was to be a feature of the Central Arizona Project, but the reservoir would have inundated the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation as well as resulted in other severe environmental consequences. I was able to complete my dissertation, The Incorporation of Public Values into Public Policy, through this project. By now, others at this firm were beginning to see the value of including the public in decisions that affect them.

I began to build a separate practice within this firm and stayed for 20 years. In 1998, I left to continue this work under my own name, The Rozelle Group Ltd.

What are some of the biggest influences on shaping a person’s belief or attitude about a particular issue?

Their values. People will see a situation as fair or unfair, just or unjust, right or wrong depending on the extent to which their values are affected. That is why we never ask the question: “Where do you want the sewage treatment plant to be built?” The answer will always be – not near me or not at all.

The better question is: “What is important to you with regard to where this treatment plant will eventually be built?”

Their concerns will reflect their values and can be turned into site-selection criteria.

Next, ask stakeholders to weight the relative importance of these criteria and match the results with technical performance for various sites. In the end, one should be able to say that a particular site has least impact (or best meets) the things that people said were most important to them.

I find a big “aha!” from stakeholders is their surprise at how much they actually can agree on. Often, they may be focused on the one or two things on which they disagree. 

What type of issues are the most challenging and why?

Issues that affect a person’s home, family, health or livelihood can be challenging because only they can say whether or not they feel the proposal is affecting these things. It may not always seem so to the proponent. It can also be challenging to discern if there really is a strong feeling or if it is a pretense for something else.

Can you explain how you integrate stakeholder value into the consensus-building process?

First, answer the question: “What can the stakeholder affect about this decision?” Think hard about this because fundamental assumptions made by the proponent will be questioned.

An example: A local utility wanted to plan the route for a series of substations and transmission lines to accommodate future development. The engineers wanted to loop the line to achieve redundancy though it would impact two towns which would have no benefit from this additional power infrastructure. The towns challenged the utility to prove they needed this redundancy. The utility could not do so and that part of the project was dropped from further consideration.

In what ways has social media impacted your ability to build consensus or communicate about a position?

Social media works best in my opinion to raise awareness about an issue and to have some dialogue with the proponent. It is not possible to control the negative voices or those with inaccurate information.

I have not seen social media work when the goal is to achieve consensus. One of the requirements for consensus is that all perspectives need to be “at the table.”

What are some of the important factors for getting an individual to consider changing their position on an issue?

Helping them to articulate their interest rather than their position. People tend to frame a problem as a solution.

An example: Coyotes were killing the ranchers’ sheep. Ranchers said, “The problem is we have to kill the coyotes.” No. The problem is, “We have to figure out the best way to save our sheep.”

How do you address stakeholders who have a preconceived notion about an issue that is based on factually inaccurate information?

This can be tough. Try and determine if part of the individual’s strategy is to create support for his or her position by purposely sounding the alarm with negative facts that support their position.

Several strategies come to mind for those stakeholders who might be open to really listening, learning and perhaps modifying their point of view. Create a fact sheet stating the “Myth” and the “Fact.” Thoughtfully design an in-person meeting or workshop to address the inaccurate information. Open forums or town hall type meetings are the least effective because people can say whatever they want to and those responding will feel like they are on the defensive. Smaller meetings where dialogue can occur works better.

And just a few personal questions:

If you could go to dinner with one living individual, who would it be and why?

Stephen Hawking. Not to talk about his phenomenal scientific work, but to talk about his 50 years of living with ALS.

What is your favorite 1) Book 2) Movie and 3)TV show?

TV: Blue Bloods and Madame Secretary.

Book: Too many, but one I really liked is Angels in the Darkness: A Family’s Triumph over Hitler and World War II Berlin: 1935 – 1949 by Lisa Farringer Parker

Movie: Again too many, but I recently saw Maudie and enjoyed it a lot.

If you could give one piece of advice to anyone, what would it be?

Conflict is not a bad thing. It can bring out issues and concerns that otherwise may lie dormant and manifest themselves in destructive ways. When you find yourself in a situation of conflict (personally or professionally), take time to really listen to yourself and to the other person. Ask probing questions (of yourself and/or of them) to identify the central or core issue. That will give you a starting place to manage or resolve the conflict.