By Joshua Benton and Chris Osher
Blade Staff Writers
In a perfect world, a public servant wouldn’t need to spend $1,175 to learn how to deal with an angry public.
But it’s not a perfect world, at least for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.
For two days last month, port board President James Hartung went to suburban Boston to learn from top “conflict resolution” professors as part of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.
The seminar, “Dealing With An Angry Public,” provided advice to executives forced to deal with citizens miffed at their actions.
It’s designed for people who, in the words of a brochure, “failed to live up to a promise,” “said something that wasn’t true,” or caused “widespread public alarm” or “a threat of catastrophe.”
Among the issues discussed:
* “Turning confrontation into constructive negotiation.”
* “Uncovering the real interests of the other side.”
* “What do you do about individuals who are totally unrealistic, or who seek to manipulate the situation for their own gain?”
* “How do you work with the media to shape public acceptance?”
* “What new techniques can you use to counter unfavorable media coverage?”
The program’s “who should attend” list reads like a Ralph Nader nightmare: oil companies that have had a big spill, hospitals facing malpractice suits, construction firms being sued for structural defects, tobacco giants facing regulation, and supermarkets accused of selling toxic food.
The brochure touts its “mutual gains” approach, which advocates getting adversaries to see solutions to help both sides. “When a crisis threatens your company’s reputation or market share, how can you work quickly and cost effectively to avoid potential disaster?” the brochure asks.
Among the plaudits the program has received from past students: “For those who think interactions with the public are hopeless, this course gives you a way to see a light at the end of the tunnel”; and, “This program is a must for anyone who deals in a hostile environment.”
In addition to the $1,175 tuition fee, the port authority spent $357.58 for Mr. Hartung to spend two nights at a Marriott in Cambridge, Mass., and $1,084 on a plane ticket. That ticket included another leg of his trip – going to Washington for the Blade-sponsored Capital Connection, a three-day program for area leaders.
Asked about the “Angry Public” seminar that he decided to attend, Mr. Hartung said in a prepared statement: “The essence of the seminar was to become skilled in the mutual gains approach to conflict resolution, in a win-win negotiation setup.”
He concluded that “it would be beneficial to his responsibility as the port authority’s lead negotiator and allow him to begin to integrate his body of knowledge into the business, economic development, and community relations aspects of the port authority,” said spokesman Ron Skulas.