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?

Continue reading “Making Your Community Relations Play”

Technology is Nice, but You Have To Walk the Walk

Tonight, political junkies like me kept tabs on the Coakley-Brown special election to replace the deceased Ted Kennedy as Massachusetts’ U.S. Senator. Attorney General Martha Coakley – as the Democratic candidate who had the backing of the DNC, White House, Kennedy family, your old crazy uncle, my dog, etc – was expected to be the runaway victor, as the Democratic candidate running for the seat of one of the Democrats most honored members. So she didn’t really campaign after the primary election, instead she was content to go on vacation and relax, waiting for her due reward.

Her opponent, Republican Scott Brown, on the other hand treated this campaign like any other race. Getting online with greater urgency than his opponent was a definite benefit (see “Obama, Barack” for another example of great technology use in politics) but another thing Brown did was act like an old-fashioned candidate. Holding events, meeting people, walking from house to house (in the snow, with no shoes, uphill both ways…), and introducing himself to his potential constituents.  In other words, he engaged in community relations to an extent that Coakley didn’t even attempt. (there are other elements as well, this is just a quick take)

Her expectations of a coronation blinded her and her team to a surging Brown campaign that ran a good show.  Why mention this now, when pundits all over the country (with more skin in the game – no pun to Mr. Brown’s … “special pictorial” mentioned in the campaign) are talking about this far more in depth than I?

Because there is an important lesson here for businesses CEOs and organizational leaders.

All of the technology in the world sometimes can’t make up for a lack of wanting to get involved with people on a personal level.  It’s about community relations and personal interaction.  “Boots on the ground,” and listening to people’s concerns over a cup of coffee before you act, whether in politics or business, can never be understated.

Remember, people want to be able to look you in the eye, or ask you a question and feel they are being heard and their problems taken to heart. There are a lot of strengths from social media communications that you can benefit from as well – open discussion, ability to take criticism well, being up front and honest with your stakeholders, promises to do the best that you can and try to live up to them.

But really, aren’t these virtues that you should have anyway? “Mad social media skills” or no “mad social media skills?”

What’s your Game?

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.

2178346655_92a7a61746 Some things to consider are:

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)