Making Your Community Relations Play

Community relations needs to be a large part of any overall communication campaign, whether you’re working in politics, corporate PR, nonprofit or association communications.

If you’re going to be serious about community relations, you have to be involved in your community (online or offline) long before you actually need them. You’re working to build up community capital that you can cash in later when you need your community to back your proposal. If you’re a local civic leader, you can even beat back the threat of being fired with enough community support.

But like anything worth doing it takes time and hard work.

Community relations isn’t like a spigot – you can’t just turn it on and have goodwill come flooding out. It takes time – venturing out to meet with members of your community, and not just your immediate community, but across a geographical and demographic layer beyond your comfort zone. You have to go to their local summer BBQ’s, shaking hands and kissing babies, much like the best politicians.

You have to be involved in local governmental affairs. You can’t imagine the importance of good relations with local officials when you are trying to work on your university’s master plan, or building support for a Bond Campaign.
If you work at a school, college or university, your job is supposed to be easier. You should have departments dedicated to building bridges to communities. Parent Associations. Alumni Departments. PTAs for K-12. School Spirit Organizations. They are out there. You have to give them reasons to support you. Involving yourself with them matters.
How do you do this?

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Telling the Future, Back in “The Day”

Just stumbled across this on YouTube. It was one of my favorite ad campaigns back in the mid-90s. It’s from AT&T and it looks at what “You Will” be able to do for business, pleasure and the merging of the two in the future. It appealed to the cyberpunk in me, looking at how business was expected to change. And most of it has come true, but not quite in the way shown in the commercials. (It WAS the 90’s after all) I particularly like the idea of consulting from the beach…

Organizational Evangelism

(Or, “Darwin’s Bulldog 2.0”)

Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog”

Recently I’ve been talking with my friends about an idea that business guru Guy Kawasaki has been at the forefront of for many years, the idea of “product evangelism” or utilizing your biggest supporters to positively promote a product or organization (i.e. Apple’s iCabal).

Following up on this thought, you should look at how to develop your company’s/industry’s supporters into a cohesive “pack” (for lack of a better word) that is willing to support and defend your company.  Non-profit coalitions have been doing this for quite a while, and businesses can learn quite a bit from these organizations.  Many non-profits, if not almost all of them, have spent decades doing more with less when it comes to communications and coalition-building.  What these groups lacked in financial strength, they made up for in passion, perseverance, strategy and volunteerism.

What social media tools then did was lower the bar for strong content creation by these groups.  Once the bar was lowered these groups were able to produce their message cheaper and for a potentially larger audience.  This content creation then works hand-in-hand with social networking to build a larger base of volunteers, or as they tend to be called in a business setting, “evangelists.”

I call this idea “Darwin’s Bulldog 2.0″. (but I didn’t create this idea, it’s been out there for a while, but I wanted to look at how to use evangelists to passionately support and bolster your organization.)  A quick history lesson for y’all:

Thomas Huxley was a 19th century biologist from England.  He was a fierce proponent of this burgeoning scientific theory called “evolution” at a time when evolution was still being derided by many intellectual elites in England.  It was because of this devotion to his cause that he became known as “Darwin’s Bulldog.”

Huxley was groomed by Darwin and for a time became the face of public debate in favor of evolution.  He was known for his spirited debate about evolution with Samuel Wilberforce in 1860.  After this debate he served notice to the forces of traditional orthodoxy that evolution would not be easily pushed aside.  He stood in the face of this adversity for much of his career after the Wilberforce debate, giving as good as he got.

What does this have to do with public relations in the Web 2.0 world?  Quite a bit actually, especially when you advocate for your position or organization.

You can see much of the same kind of fervor online today, usually in political partisans (see Hugh Hewitt, Michelle Malkin, Daily Kos, Eschaton, etc.)  since blogging entered the political realm back in the wee early 2000s.

While not all organizations or industries would need someone to vigorously defend them, as your organization moves into the social media realm, or develops a social network of allies (on Facebook or Ning, which I recommend) you can start to “feel out” if there are any of your online evangelists that could/would serve as your fervent supporters or defenders.

Trying to put together a “viral” social media campaign will not be successful without some level of separate, independent evangelism from your supporters.  (see “Walmarting Across America” or the definition of “greenwashing.”) This is where working with Ning, Awareness Inc., a site like My Barack Obama, or Facebook can help with creating a community for your supporters.  Giving them a chance to interact with each other, sharing and improving on ideas for your organization or product.

Suffice it to say, you will need to monitor and nurture this potentially burgeoning community.  As your community grows, you’ll get opponents signing on to keep track of what your organization is doing, and potentially flaming your community and sabotaging your efforts in growing the community.  You need to have a member of your social media team, probably one of your bloggers (if you have the luxury of hiring more than one person to take care of your social media creation needs) also oversee the community and interact with your evangelists in it.  Check out Dell’s IdeaStorm site for ideas to build on.

It’s important that these people be organically independent of your business.  You don’t want to be caught in the position of “paying” for support,” and the following blogstorm that will ensue. (see “Walmarting Across America” for an example of what not to do)

If your evangelists do work for your organization, they have to be up front about it – and then go the extra steps to prove that they mean what they advocate, and aren’t just cashing a paycheck. As long as they own up to working for the company, they aren’t disqualified for representing their company with passion.

To my PR readers out there, what do you think?  Should your organization have a “bulldog,” someone who is out there passionately defending your brand?  What do you think the downside is?  Can they be seen as a “loose cannon” who can do more damage to your brand?  Should you let one of your internal defenders speak out for you, or do you think that will cause more damage to your organization’s brand?

From the Archives – “Bigger Boobs Through Social Media?”

If you are interested in social media, and learning how to get started or engage more in this burgeoning online media-sphere, then you have probably run across quite a few stories/blogpieces/ads pimping how “You Can Get 10,000 Twitter Followers in 30 Days!” or “You Too Can Become a Facebook Gawd!!1!!” and other such nonsense.  To me these are nothing more than just the latest “How To Get Bigger Boobs Through Social Media”-esque BS lures to remove you from your money or time (both of which are important).

A lot of these try to latch onto our need to be recognized, to be acknowledged quickly for our brilliance – and claim to provide a quick, “gimme gimme gimme now” fix to achieving this. Like most things in life and business, working in social media is going to require a lot of patience, time, strategic planning and hard work.

One of the big ideas these “plans” leave out – especially important if you are a business owner or corporate type – is the need for some kind of merging of your strategy between social media and communications. Social media are great tools for building additional communications and increasing your community outreach/developing a community relations platform, but they will never really replace your communications/pr strategy.  They can help augment it, but your social media outlets are really one more avenue to communicate with people, and need their own strategy to . But you need to have a firm strategy in place before you really jump in and drown in all the noise out there.

At the end of the day you’re not going to land 10,000 followers in a month, nor are you going to achieve deitific bliss on Facebook or – Buddha forgive – MySpace. As with most things in life, you need to work at it and show patience. Engage with your target audiences, look at the strategy you have developed – what do you want to say to them? What goals are you hoping to achieve? Why are you writing or recording?

From the Archives – Another Take on "Blogger Relations"

Are We Focusing Too Much on Blogger Relations? from Benson on Vimeo.

Social media is more about social interaction and being online as another means of message distribution than it is about “blogger relations.”

The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that we in public relations should not be focused as much on blogger relations in our social media planning and usage, we should instead be focused on creating cool content and building relationships with other bloggers/podcasters/etc. It involves being engaged with people on a smaller level, much the same way as the mainstream outlets are fragmenting more and more. But interpersonal relationships are like that, you can’t be best buds with thousands of people.

It’s the argument of the “cool kids” vs. the “popular kids.” The “cool kids” are too busy creating content to worry about whether or not you are hanging out with the “popular kids.” If you have to choose, you should pick the road less traveled – the one of creating content to attract an audience of interested people who want to listen to what you have to say, and then developing your online connections.

Take Twitter (please! Just kidding) for instance.  You can have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, but is that anything more than just a status symbol? It’s especially telling for people like Ashton Kutcher, or other celebs on Twitter – those people with millions of followers, but are only connected to a couple of dozen themselves. In cases like this, these accounts are used as purely broadcast platforms for people who want to “see a part of the life” or “catch of a slice of AK.”

This is not a bad model, in and of itself, and it leverages the popularity of these celebrities quite well. But for average companies or people, it’s not really a model that works. Remember, people are interested in connecting with people, not with companies. It’s the uncommon company that can get away with having a fierce group who just want to be part of the brand (i.e. sports teams, Apple, etc)

In the meantime, it might be better for people to focus more on developing the content that will interest and attract people to their “brand” and produce enough content to keep them interested in returning. Believe it or not, the content might not be directly related to their work or product. If the people keep coming to check it out, your personal brand might achieve that “top of mind awareness,” or to put it another way, might stick in their mind.

When I spoke a little bit about this on the video linked above, I didn’t realize that tof the heavy hitters in social media, Chris Brogan had given a different take at his site.  This is just my humble two-cents.