Importance of an Effective Community Relations Program
by Martin Cohn
There are some powerful relationship realities between various community groups and organizations. Constituents are asking more questions; decisions are taking longer. Very small forces, sometimes individuals, can stop very big ideas and projects. People without credentials have enormous credibility. Corporations and institutions must prove their validity, honesty, and trustworthiness every day. Most public debate and discussion, on issues that matter, are focused more on embarrassment, humiliation, and blame shifting than on achieving beneficial progress.
In today's environment of public suspicion, gaining and maintaining public consent to operate has become an on-going, top management concern for most businesses and large organizations. Community relationships are effectively maintained primarily through engagement with various publics and audiences within the community and your organization.
It is often stated that community relations are “public relations at the local level” or that it is “living right and telling about it.” It has also been explained as “having and keeping friends in the community.” These statements get to the heart of community relations, but they are oversimplified definitions when the vital mission of community relations is analyzed clearly.
Community relations is the function that evaluates public attitudes, identities the mission of an organization with the public interest and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance. Like public relations, community relations is something an organization has whether this fact is recognized or not. Unlike public relations, community relations is usually limited to the local area. Business organizations give attention to their community relations for good reason. Organizations can exist and make a profit only as long as the public allows them to exist. The concept that American free enterprise exists only to make a profit and is responsible only to its official family has diminished to a great degree. It has fast given way to the realization that there is also a responsibility to the community in which the organization is located and that it is advisable for the organization to meet this responsibility of its own free will. While there is not universal agreement on the specific benefits gained, organizations conducting planned programs cite many tangible and intangible benefits from their community relations efforts. Benefits from good community relations do not come automatically. In fact, many organizations that are fine employers and outstanding corporate citizens fail to realize the rewards to which their virtues entitle them. They miss the payoff because they fail to tell about it. Communicating to key publics the benefits derived from sound community relations further enhances an organization’s overall program. Attitude surveys reveal that community neighbors traditionally know little about companies in their towns and the important part each plays in the civic programs of their towns.
Like so many specific disciplines within the practice of public relations, the work done by community relations practitioners is extremely complex. And yet, if you leaf through the general public relations texts, you won’t find much discussion about "community relations."
It’s probably because community relations activities emulate the work done by public relations practitioners on a regular basis (that is, carefully researched, targeted communications to achieve an organizational goal -- community acceptance and support). Consequently, the authors probably didn’t think it necessary to break out community relations activities from the work that’s done every day.
None-the-less, community relations deserve some serious discussion. Basically, what good, effective community relations does is involve the people, businesses and organizations who live, work and operate in the surrounding community in company activities.
A company does not live in a vacuum. The citizens and groups that populate its geographic operating area are essential to its operation. The employees live in the community; they very likely grew up there. The company banks in the community. Municipal, county and state governments set the parameters by which the company can operate.
As a result, a successful organization must continuously establish understanding and support for its products, services and positions among those publics important to its welfare. And you only get this by applying good public relations principles over time.
In the spring of 2002, Aquarion acquired four American New England water utilities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire. The sale added some 177,000 people, or 64,000 homes and businesses, to the approximate 147,000 homes and businesses or 500,000 people to whom Aquarion’s water utilities already provided quality water.
To effect a smooth transition for existing and new Aquarion Water Company customers and other constituents, Aquarion formulated and implemented a major internal and external communications effort to educate all the companies’ publics of pre- and post-merger activities and created awareness of and position Aquarion as an industry, environmental and community leader.
As well, the company planned and implemented an education plan to not only form a stronger bond with the customers of Aquarion Water Company, but to address a variety of public, community relations and critical water supply issues in the company’s service areas of both Massachusetts (Hingham, Hull, Cohasset, Oxford, and Millbury) and New Hampshire (Hampton, North Hampton, and Rye).
The issues – local control, water rates, water supply and regionalization – are interrelated. As one issue is addressed it impacts the others and thus complicates Aquarion Water Company operational and public relations challenges.
Additionally, Aquarion’s need to call upon community leaders, state lawmakers and other opinion leaders was hindered by the predecessor company’s traditional low profile. Management was not encouraged to become part of the fabric of the communities where it operates or to actively communicate with the media. Therefore, the company’s visibility had historically been low. Also, help with water supply matters was almost non-existent.
In the ensuing four years, especially the last two, much progress has been made. In both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, good community, media and government relations are evidenced by successes in a Millbury perchlorate situation, a Cohasset Interconnection, and a Hampton takeover referendum.
In 2005, Aquarion went before the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission seeking a rate increase. This caused water issues to bubble up on the agendas of elected and appointed officials in its service towns. Notably, one individual, Henry Fuller, chair of the North Hampton Water Commission, began a personal campaign to thwart the rate increase. He used the visible condition of fire hydrants to allege the lack of service and therefore the lack of need for a rate increase. He also raised the issue of municipal takeover.
Two years before, Aquarion found itself in a similar position in another of its service towns, Hampton, New Hampshire. There, a selectmen proposed a warrant article to appoint a special committee to study the possible acquisition of Aquarion Water Company. Larry Bingaman, Aquarion’s senior vice president was denied the opportunity to speak at the deliberative town meeting.
We developed an aggressive campaign with the slogan “ WHY STUDY A FIX FOR SOMETHING THAT ISN’T BROKE?” to educate voters about the accomplishments of Aquarion since the merger, as well as the potential costs of an eminent domain case. We utilized direct mail to all Hampton residents and met with reporters individual to present our key messages. The result was a 4:1defeat of the referendum.
Lessons were learned. Aquarion needed to develop a community relations program. It reached out to all the media covering its service town, local government officials, and formed a customer advisory committee comprised of representatives from its service towns.
When the idea of an eminent domain takeover emerged in North Hampton, Aquarion was better able to respond. The media not only presented a balanced account of the issues raised, but also questioned the proponents as to the viability of the idea. The Customer Advisory Committee was able to identify other key North Hampton opinion leaders with whom we met to present our key messages.
These messages were:
• Educate customers on the value of high-quality water and reiterate, as appropriate, the investments that have been made in the water systems to try to defuse conflicts due to inevitable water rates increases.
• Promote the perception that Aquarion Water is a responsive entity that’s concerned about providing the highest quality water service available for the most economical cost. Use examples of increased operations efficiency.
• Inform customers of Aquarion Water’s actions and investments to ensure that it continues to mitigate future rate increases.
• Communicate the value of Aquarion Water Company of New Hampshire if taken by eminent domain and dispel the perception that the towns of Hampton, North Hampton and Rye could purchase the company and operate it at lower rates.
• Demonstrate through actions that Aquarion is a caring, community minded company that seeks to put something back in the towns where it operates through volunteerism, philanthropy, community service and sponsorships.
In general, all the strategies were designed to educate and keep Aquarion’s New Hampshire North Hampton constituents informed of such pertinent matters as infrastructure investments, water quality, community involvement, land and other activities. Communications were targeted to specific audience groups based on areas of interest. The Aquarion Web site was promoted as a key communications vehicle in which articles and opinion papers were posted. A “Fire Chiefs Council” was created that enabled Aquarion to hear first hand from the fire chiefs of its three service towns water issues. And, employees were kept informed and provided an outlet for their concerns. The end result was a 60:40 defeat of the warrant article.
And what were the lessons learned?
Aquarion needed to identify all its constituents in order to tell the community about the company. These constituents include
• Government Officials,
• Town CEOs,
• Board of Selectmen,
• Water Supply Committees,
• Opinion Leaders,
• Regional Chambers of Commerce,
• Fire Chiefs and
• New Hampshire News Reporters and Editors.
It also learned that good community relations should involve several activities:
• Listening to community wants and needs.
• Allaying the community’s fears about the company.
• Protecting the community’s health and safety.
• Managing corporate contributions of time and money.
• Encouraging and managing employee volunteerism.
• Implementing fair recruitment and employment practices.
• Maintaining profitable -- but ethical -- operating practices.
And, most importantly it learned that being a good corporate citizen is not something that can be done sporadically but rather is something that needs to be done consistently and visibly.
A community relations policy puts the commitment in writing and spells out guidelines under which the company will participate in community affairs. Craig Miyamoto, APR created a sample that can be adapted to meet various corporate needs. He wrote:
1. As part of this community, we are committed to being a good neighbor. As such, we pledge to be responsive to the concerns and the welfare of those with whom we share the land.
2. We will work toward building a positive, open relationship and interdependence among all that care about this community’s well-being. We will be forthright and open in all of our dealings with the community.
3. We believe in the need for two-way communication with the community at large, and will seek its feedback. This feedback will be a valuable part of our operations and will become an integral part of our decision-making process.
4. Finally, we pledge that any decisions impacting on the community will be communicated to them in a timely and accurate manner.
The value of such a policy statement is that it provides broad guidelines on a company’s intentions, on the way it sees its role in the community, and on its commitment to be a good neighbor. And, THAT'S good community relations.
Martin Cohn is president of Cohn Public Relations, a full service public relations firm based in Brattleboro, Vermont. Martin and his 30 years of experience in all facets of public relations can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org