Motives vs Merits


You won't hear much about the merits. You win or lose on an emotional level. Photo courtesy of

You won’t hear much about the merits.
You win or lose on an emotional level.

Photo courtesy of

NIMBYism. Not a new concept. Not always straightforward, either.

Truth is, We see what we want to see. Or what others want us to see.

Sometimes people are upfront about motives: I’ve got mine, and I won’t give it up. Like owners of oceanfront property in New Jersey who won’t let the government build a giant sand dune to protect communities from being flooded by rising seas. Why? It would ruin their view.

Other times, rationales seem contrived. Like environmentalists trying to stop oil-field equipment from being trucked through Idaho to tar-sands projects in Canada. The stated reason: To protect “aesthetic, spiritual and recreational values” along the travel route, which includes tribal lands. No mention that environmentalists believe tar sands are filthy and oppose them on principle.

Similarly, starkly different visions of what to expect are presented by proponents and opponents. Like a proposed waterfront project in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A rendering by architects for the developer shows eight clean, shimmering towers enhancing the Manhattan skyline. A rendering by critics shows dark, bloated buildings towering ominously against Manhattan.

Which rationale is legitimate? Whose view is true? Those are the wrong questions.

Ultimately, only one thing matters: Who wins? That depends on who’s perceived as most  sympathetic, whose argument is most compelling, who’s most persuasive.

Enter those who influence public opinion, including Crisis & Reputation Management.

Which tactics will work best — and which won’t?

Spite (à la the N.J. oceanfront homeowners) usually doesn’t win wide support. Neither does a philosophical battle balancing individual property rights versus the public well-being.

The anti-tar-sands group is on the right tack, appealing to hot buttons (aesthetics, sacred lands, recreation) that are difficult to oppose. They’d have a harder time selling their case as the perceived evil of tar sands versus the health of the economy and the public’s need for fuel.

The Greenpoint dispute is a straightforward appeal to the emotions of the project’s neighbors — to their hopes and their fears.

In none of the cases will you hear much talk about the actual merits. To triumph, you need to win over your constituency on an emotional level.


“Because Reputation Is Your Most Valuable Asset”

Gillott Communications is a Los Angeles-based public relations firm that specializes in high-stakes Crisis & Reputation Management. If you don’t already subscribe, please sign up for our blog Insights on High-Stakes PR. You can reach Roger Gillott directly at 310-826-8696.


One thought on “Motives vs Merits

  1. We learn this lesson big time with trial juries. If a juror identifies with one of the parties, that’s what decides the case for that juror — — without regard to the facts. We had female judge once who had a crush on one of the very much younger attorneys. We got some crazy rulings from her in that case. The emotion factor applies across the boards.

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