With all of the talk of social media and public relations, something I haven’t seen much talk about is the importance of community building and coalition relations. Not “community building” in the sense of using a Facebook group or Ning site to connect online, but a real, face-to-face community relations ground game – one of the big pillars of a communications program.
A lot of public relations is seen as how to spin the media – what are we going to tell the press to get them off of our backs, or give our side of the story out of some kind of “fairness”? But if you look at the two root words of PR, public and relations, how can PR not be about working with members of the general public, which is the foundation for community relations.
Community relations is about developing connections with people who agree, and sometimes more importantly, disagree with your organization. It’s about building coalitions with people and groups that feel a connection to your organization, whether it’s a school (like UNM), a company (like Apple or Microsoft), a candidate (Barack Obama, anyone?), and creating a community with them.
Are you looking beyond your “borders?” Too often we consider the people right next to us to be our neighbors or peers, without looking past them to other community or civic groups who you influence. They might be more understanding of your needs, should your immediate neighbors be unduly aggressive towards you.
Do you have any boots on the ground? By “boots on the ground,” do you have any organizations or groups in the community who are willing to lend support to your cause? People who are willing to advocate for you, work phone banks if necessary, hold or attend town hall meetings to speak on your behalf or share ideas? This starts to develop like a political campaign – who are your most important generals in the field? Who can you depend on to promote your story?
Remember to listen carefully. The old saying goes, “we all have two ears and one mouth in order to listen twice as much as we talk.” Listen to what your constituents have to say, and take it to heart. It might not be easy for you to hear, especially if you have upset your neighbors, but it’s important to look at things from their point of view. More often than not, these groups want to be listened to, to know that you are taking their views into consideration. (also, actively listen – take notes, take pictures if necessary, post them all online with your initial thoughts and ask the same people you spoke with to provide their input)
Who are you listening to? This usually comes up when you spend too much time dealing with your peers, whether you’re a PR person commiserating with others at the bar, or a CEO or board president listening only to your vice presidents or fellow CEOs. One of your most important community relations weapons is the old “Town Hall” meeting. (which we’ve all heard too much about over the summer) But not all Town Hall meetings are like the ones being stormed over by activists. You want to take the opportunity to meet your constituents, detractors and potential supporters and give them the chance to talk face-to-face with you.
Public relations and community relations really work hand in hand, without one the other becomes much harder. If you take the time to develop good relationships with your community – whoever that is – you may be able to develop better public relations than any standard “PR Plan” can come up with. What about you, dear readers? What advice do you have for people (candidates?) who want to improve their relationship with the local community? Like they ask in the World of Warcraft commercials, “What’s your game?”
(Picture is Church, Pie Town, New Mexico, courtesy of the Library of Congress and taken by Russell Lee)