How Prior Permission Trumps Fumbling for Forgiveness

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Has anyone ever tried to convince you that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission?

From a public relations point of view, it is important to remember the decision will leave a lasting impression on the people most directly affected by your actions.

I was involved in an episode where we pondered that question and could have made the wrong move. Instead, the right decision was agreed upon and the whole story is worth repeating - if it helps someone else stay on the good side of the PR spectrum.

The Plan

I am part of a community group called Adopt-A-Block. A few faithful volunteers have been mowing grass, raking leaves and hauling garbage for people in Southeast Roseburg for about a year now. The program is part of the Roseburg Dream Center, a non-profit church outreach organization.

For the past few weeks, we have been planning a cleanup event at a local park where drug use and some other bad behavior have become the norm. A creek bordering the park has become a magnet for bad behavior.

Our purpose for the event is two-fold. We want to clean things up around the park, but we also want the neighborhood to know Adopt-A-Block exists. We're hoping that our efforts will do a little something to bring the community together.

We scouted the park and decided that our first priority was to remove a thick bramble of blackberries choking one side of the creek near a bridge. If we cleared those berries away, we thought, it would open things up and put the activities that happened near the stream on display, instead of hiding them.

Here is the video I shot to explain what we planned on doing. I didn't know I would be posting this when I shot it, so please forgive my technique:

The Choice

Some people suggested we just go in and clear those bushes out without asking anyone about it first. Their thinking fell along the old (in this case also very dangerous) saying 'it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission'.

Our team had a feeling that it would be much better to find out who owned the property, ask their permission and then proceed. The risk was this: what if in the process of notifying the city we run into resistance and someone shuts the door on our plan? 

We knew we had to face that risk and do the right thing.

So Steve, the co-director of the Dream Center, scheduled meetings with officials at the City of Roseburg. 

Some very good things happened through those meetings. First, Steve got to be the face of the organization in the most official capacity possible. He represents the Dream Center well and was a very strong ambassador. Through his conversations, he built trust and transparency with people we hope to cooperate with in the future.

Second, he was able to change the perception some people at the city had about the Dream Center. He answered many questions and actually found the city officials to be supportive of both the project and our organization.

The Challenge

Once we had buy-in from the city, we began printing flyers and notifying people through the usual channels.

It was about then we realized there was one person we had not thought to check with.

The neighbor closest to the park.

Now, we aren't totally stupid. We knocked on the doors of a couple of the homes bordering the park and the creek and even called the number listed on a for sale sign in a nearby vacant lot to make sure they were okay with our plans.

The house that presented the problem (or opportunity, as it turned out) was on the other side of the creek. You can see the fence that marks their property in the first few frames of the video.

We were so sure everyone would agree that the blackberry bush had to go, and so confident that the city owned the property we would be working on, it came as a surprise to us when we heard that a neighbor was very upset with our plan.

The neighbor, who cared deeply about the well-being of the neighborhood and was supportive of our project, was actually emotional when she told us why those blackberry bushes should remain in place.

In her experience, and that of her husband, the blackberries actually discouraged people from going down to the creek. Their strong opinion was, so many bad things are happening in the park, removing that tangle of thorny branches would only make things worse.

Their biggest complaint was against the unsupervised teenaged kids that would come to the park in the afternoon. Those kids were foul mouthed and belligerent and even did drugs and  defecated in the stream. This couple was left to clean up the mess and couldn't help hearing every word.

The Compromise

Steve and I knew there were other things we could have our work crews do in the creek, so our event was still on, but there was no doubt we would need adjust.

Here's what we did.

We remembered our main objective. We honestly want to improve the community. We could not accomplish that goal if we angered the person most passionate about the park and the creek.

We let the neighbor talk first. She let us know the history of the park and all the things she and her husband have done to fix the problem. She described what happened the last time they cut the berry bushes back. He mentioned that he regularly removes needles from that area.

We asked them for their input. Once they understood our goals, they actually made suggestions that would help us accomplish those goals - while protecting theirs.

By the end of the conversation, we had a backup plan we could all support. We had turned a potential enemy into an ally and we even came up with a follow-up plan. In a few weeks, we'll bring pizza to the park one afternoon, have a bible study with kids that come by and play basketball with them.

Before you decide whether that plan is a good way to impact the neighborhood, remember we are in this for the long haul. Consistency is on our side.

The Conclusion

Consider the outcome had we just barreled into that park and that creek without doing the footwork first. All the good intentions in the world would not have made a difference to the people we would have angered. Not to mention the rules we would have violated from the point of view of the City of Roseburg. We cannot use power tools. Parrott Creek is a spawning stream.

By taking a more careful approach - and a healthy dose of diplomacy - we have allies and not enemies in the neighborhood and the city, more people in key places who know more about our organization, an exciting community project and a plan that might make a dent in the real problem. 

I will follow up with a report after we clean up the park to let you know how it went. In the meantime, ignore the voice in your head that says its better to ask forgiveness than permission.