What is Community Relations?
So what does community relations mean to you?
Seth Godin, a veteran marketer of the dot-com boom, once said, ‘people do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic’.
Time has proven him right. More and more companies across the world are discovering that maintaining a competitive edge is not just about marketing their products, it’s about marketing themselves too.
Enter public relations. The aim of PR is to raise a business’s profile and boost its reputation with the public, investors and the media. There are many ways to do it, from media relations and public affairs, to employee relations and crisis communications. But there’s one subset of PR that’s often neglected at the expense of others.
I’m talking about community relations. And more specifically, corporate community relations, which is essentially community relations for businesses.
So what is community relations exactly?
A community relations definition by Reference For Business states: ‘the methods companies use to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with the communities in which they operate’.
You may be thinking ‘but community is a broad term’. And you’re right. It means different things to different people. For one business, it might mean their immediate neighbours on the high street. For another, it might be the city their headquarters is based in.
So for the purposes of this post, ‘community’ refers to anyone affected by your operations.
The benefits of community relations
Businesses have a civic and moral responsibility to take an active interest in the wellbeing of their communities. But over and above that, community relations can do wonders for PR in terms of raising your profile in the community and fostering goodwill. It can also boost the productivity of your workforce. Look at Barclays. The bank reported an almost 60% increase in teamwork, communication and leadership skills after incorporating a corporate volunteering initiative. It’s a win-win.
Where should you start with your community relations strategy?
Community relations involves giving something back to the community. It can take many forms, but here are a few ideas to get you started.
Tech giant Microsoft is well known for ploughing money into the communities it operates in. In 2019, the brand invested $500m into affordable housing in the Seattle area.
This is a prime example of community investing. Not only did this gesture make a practical difference to the community, it won Microsoft more fans and a ton of glowing coverage.
While you may not have a spare $500m lying around, a donation of any size to support a local cause will be appreciated, and it’ll help get your brand known in your community.
Another way to give back is with community events.
A lot of businesses can feel faceless or unapproachable. But a community-wide summer party, or Christmas drinks at your office could do wonders for your reputation.
Another approach is to sponsor local events. Take McDonald’s, who partnered with the FA League to host community football days across England. Sponsoring refreshments, activities and training, they helped a load of football-mad kids take the first step towards playing professionally.
This was a great initiative on McDonald’s part. Not only did they win a legion of new, young fans, they bagged a load of community relations PR for their efforts.
Good social media usage can also do wonders for community relations. Retweeting a post about a local fundraiser or throwing your support behind an issue affecting your community can be a powerful way to initiate change.
Take The Body Shop. In 2018, the skin care brand partnered with Cruelty Free International to draw attention to the issues surrounding animal testing for cosmetics products. Using their social media presence, they amassed over eight million signatures for a petition to the United Nations demanding international restrictions on animal testing. As a result, countries including Australia, Canada and America passed legislation against testing.
Corporate volunteering is a great way to get your employees involved in the community. Age UK, a charity for the elderly, has worked with companies like Lloyds Bank and Santander and used corporate volunteering to make a difference to people’s lives.
The scheme involves brands organising outings or cinema trips for the elderly and disadvantaged, and hosting fun social events at Age UK centres.
Setting up volunteering schemes like these for your employees is a fantastic way to give back to the community and keep them motivated. While it doesn’t directly increase your profits, it shows that you care about social responsibility and is a great way to boost employee morale, as this survey by Deloitte shows.
What’s the difference between public relations and community relations?
You might be on board with the importance of community relations, but how is it different to public relations?
Community relations is a subset of public relations. Community relations is the work your business does to garner goodwill in the community. It’s the donation you make to build that new hospital wing, or the campaigning you do to support a local cause.
Public relations is how you package up and present that work to an audience, such as the media. When you send a press release to the local newspaper about that new hospital wing with photos from the opening ceremony, that’s public relations.
Naturally, there’s an overlap between the two, as community relations can generate its own PR. For example, if a local journalist catches wind of your donation and writes about it in the local paper, or someone Tweets about your generosity and your kind act goes viral, that’s organic community relations PR, which is the best kind.
This is one of many reasons to keep your community relations specialist in tune with the rest of your public relations team. The PR team can work with your community relations consultant to help magnify your initiatives in the community and make sure they’re recognised.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the general public have never been more receptive to socially responsible businesses. Ethical consumer spending has increased ten-fold over the last twenty years which means that investing in a solid community relations strategy will pay dividends in the long run.
The good and the bad of community relations campaigns
You should now have a handle on what community relations is and how it’s different to public relations. Now let’s look at a few real-world examples of how corporate community relations has impacted businesses, for better and worse.
Let’s start with the worse. Ride-sharing brand Uber has been rocked by scandal and bad press since its rise to fame. In 2017, 200,000 furious Uber users deleted the app after the company continued operating its service at John F. Kennedy International Airport during a taxi strike in protest of President Trump’s immigration ban.
In 2019, the brand was denied a licence to operate in London, citing concerns over rider safety.
These are just two of the many crises the brand has faced.
Given that Uber employees are local contractors from the communities they’re upsetting, you’d think Uber would have a rock-solid community relations strategy. But they don’t.
Imagine a world where Uber offered free or subsidised rides to low-income commuters, the elderly, and healthcare workers. A simple, loss-leading community relations initiative such as this could have gone some way to restoring their damaged reputation.
On the other hand, forward-thinking Disney has nailed its community relations strategy.
Every Disneyland park requires massive amounts of land, utilities and municipal goodwill to get it off the ground. CEO Bob Chapek recognised this and wanted to give back to the communities affected by development. So he spearheaded a collaboration in 2017 with Points of Light, an international volunteering organisation. The initiative required families and schools to complete projects with the charity, ranging from collecting litter in a local park, to packing toys for donations during the holiday season.
In return, they received tickets to Disney theme parks in Florida or California, which they could use themselves or donate to other charities.
The programme was a roaring success for Disney, attracting over half a million volunteers.
By targeting the campaign towards families and schools, they also reinforced their image as a family-friendly company, showing a clear awareness of their target audience.
Of course, Disney is in a unique position. If Amazon gave volunteers free tours of their shipping warehouses, chances are people wouldn’t be chomping at the bit to sign up. As a global corporation, however, Amazon stands to benefit from strong community relations.
This is especially true considering its reputation for ‘killing’ small businesses. Steven Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary of the United States said of the online retail giant, ‘if you look at Amazon […] they’ve destroyed the retail industry across the United States, so there’s no question they’ve limited competition.’
To counter this, Amazon went on a charm offensive. In the UK, the brand attempted to make amends with its Magic Breakfast programme, which provides over a million healthy breakfasts a year to underprivileged school children.
Feeding people’s children lessened the financial load on potential consumers, spurred adults into shopping with Amazon more regularly and instilled brand awareness in the next generation of consumers from a young age. It was a cunning community relations strategy that helped Amazon win back disgruntled customers.
Seven tips for building a great community relations strategy
By this point, you should be convinced that community relations is a big deal. Now you need to put a strategy in place which will enable you to plan ahead and use your resources effectively.
Here are seven top tips for formulating a killer community relations strategy.
Invest in a professional
Many companies have community relations specialists and consultants on hand to develop the best possible strategies. Their experience and expertise will make sure everything runs smoothly and prevent disaster scenarios, à la Uber.
Review your aims and values
Your company’s mission statement and core beliefs will be at the heart of any community relations work you do. Keeping them in mind will highlight what projects to focus on and what causes you should champion.
Set clear goals
Like most business goals, community relations plans should be SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.
And don’t expect to change the world overnight. Make sure your goals are realistic, as it’ll end up eating into your budget and disheartening your employees.
Reach out to other companies
Community relations is a booming field, so why not seek inspiration from other businesses in your sector? Look at what they’ve done and how it’s improved their business. Even better, why not look at collaborating with another business on a community relations initiative? It will double your resources, knowledge base and get your brand in front of lots of new people. It could even be the start of a long-lasting partnership.
Consult your employees
Your employees are consumers too. Ask them which businesses they admire for their work in the community, and what ideas they have for community projects. You might be surprised by how eager they are to get out of the office and do some good in the community.
Decide on the type of project
As I said earlier, there are lots of ways to give back to the community, from volunteering and community investment to a social media awareness campaign. Choose what best fits your goals and tailor everything in your strategy to it, from deadlines to personnel.
Don’t forget your other PR work
Building community relations is most powerful when you combine it with your wider PR strategy. Plan how you’re going to publicise every step of the project before it starts to ensure you get the maximum amount of coverage.