How can people who are so bright act so dumb when it comes to community and government relations?
I am speaking about Amazon’s decision to withdraw from a plan to establish a satellite corporate headquarters in Long Island City. Had the project come to fruition, it would have generated between 25,000 and 40,000 new jobs that would pay, on average, $150,000 a year, according to the company.
This should have been a slam dunk public relations opportunity for the company and the officials who led the effort to bring it to New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill Di Blasio. But neither Amazon nor the electeds bothered to take two critical stakeholders into account: The people who live and work in the surrounding communities and the politicians who represent them in Washington, Albany and at City Hall.
Residents of Long Island City, Astoria and other neighborhoods adjacent to the site feared Amazon would drive rents so high that they no longer could afford to live there. Also, people were irked by the idea of giving $3 billion in tax credits and other aid to a powerful company headed by the richest man in the world. Further, they were upset by many of Amazon’s business practices, including treatment of its warehouse employees and its opposition to labor unions.
They organized and rose up. Their elected representatives heard them and got on their side. One of them, state Sen. Michael Gianaris, was appointed to a review board that gave him veto power over the project. Not wanting to let good money chase bad, Amazon folded.
What went wrong?
If the politicians thought their tactics would bring Amazon to the negotiating table, they overplayed their hand. Didn’t they read about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos standing up to the publisher of the National Enquirer? That should have given them a clue. Bezos is the ultimate 800-pound gorilla. Sen. Gianaris’ unwillingness to meet with Amazon representatives sent the wrong signal. Now he and U. S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have targets on their backs as job killers.
Cuomo and DiBlasio didn’t bother to get a read on community sentiment, and did little, if anything, to rally support. Even if 70 percent of the population supports something, the remaining 30 percent can get their way if they are fervent enough in their opposition. Afterall, this is New York, where there are more politicians per square mile trying to make a name for themselves and more media outlets looking for a story than anywhere else.
Amazon’s “my way or the highway” approach backfired. They did not engage the community to hear its concerns and work to mitigate them. Rather, they took their toys home because they didn’t want to do business the way it is done in New York.
Corporate leaders need to recognize they cannot behave arrogantly if they want to get things done. Such conduct will do their businesses more harm than good. I wouldn’t be surprised if people drop their Amazon Prime memberships because of this debacle.
Communities where a business operates are stakeholders whose needs must be addressed, just like those of investors, employees, suppliers, government and customers. That means outreach to leaders and more. It also means holding public meetings not only to make presentations but to listen to community concerns and respond to them when they have merit.
“Amazon’s path in New York would have been far smoother had it recognized our residents’ fears of economic insecurity and displacement — and spoken to them directly,” Mayor Di Blasio wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece.
Corporations aren’t the only institutions that need to work with communities. The City University of New York (CUNY) had to delay appointment of a new president for City College when Harlem community leaders objected to the selection because their “input, insight and influence” were not incorporated into the search process.
Gov. Cuomo certainly knows the value of community relations. Several years after community opposition forced the Long Island Rail Road to shelve plans to add a third track to its main line across Nassau County, he told the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to come up with a new plan that addressed community concerns and needs.
In addition to increasing rail capacity, the project eliminates seven grade crossings, adds more than 2,500 commuter parking spaces, improves safety and reduces road congestion and noise pollution. Unlike the original plan, it does not require demolition of any residences.
The MTA and LIRR held more than 100 meetings and hearings to educate the public and listen to its concerns. The strategy succeeded as one village after another dropped their objections. Now that construction is underway, the LIRR keeps stakeholders informed through weekly progress reports and has a community relations team in place to address issues that may arise.
Even though the MTA is a public agency while Amazon is a private enterprise, the strategy is the same. Stakeholders must be recognized and their needs addressed. It may require some additional effort, but if an idea or project has merit eventually opposition will subside and the developer will be able to proceed.