Reputation management is one of the most critical areas of concern for management teams and their boards of directors. Daily media reports are filled with stories detailing how companies have either done the wrong thing or broken laws. PR practitioners must adjust their crisis plans to incorporate the latest learnings, with the hope that they are prepared to rise to the call to help their organizations avoid a similar fate, should the unthinkable occur.
But what if we can take steps in advance to build relationships that will help us to either prevent or deal with an event before it actually becomes a crisis? That may require seeking a social license to operate within a certain geographic region or community. So what actions can we take?
Increasingly, we are seeing organizations developing strategies to build relationships not just with shareholders, but stakeholders—or communities. One such tactic being used more and more relates to building online communities through social media. While this is an important component of building communities, for this specific purpose we are focusing on a different kind of community building: a grassroots community relations committee and plan.
THE COMMUNITY RELATIONS COMMITTEE
While new businesses have the advantage of building their community relations plan during their growth stages, we often see that they don’t. That being said, it is almost never too late to start and activate your plan.
For example, if your organization is operating under the following circumstances, having a community relations committee could be key:
• You operate industrial plants or stations within residential communities.
• Your organization is building a new industrial facility.
• A project has significant environmental impact and requires a public consultation process, such as building a pipeline or transmission line through a specific jurisdiction that could impact residents, nature preserves, etc.
• Your organization believes that a strong community will attract and retain better employees.
There are many reasons to have community relations but there are no shortcuts to doing it right. With corporate social responsibility being measured on more and more scorecards, community relations is now in vogue. More than just a fashion statement, community relations provides real and tangible solutions for organizations when dealing with the public.
TERMS OF REFERENCE
In addition to the accompanying checklist of items, be sure to have Terms of Reference (TOR) for your committees and share these TOR with committee members as they sign on. When modifying the TOR, be sure to do so with your committee. Here are some best practices for making sure your community relations committee is successful:
â–¶ Be consistent, with both the composition of your committee representatives as well as the timing of the meetings. If you designate people to be a part of the committee, ensure that they are committed to being at every meeting and can contribute. Company representatives should be able to make decisions and share information at the meetings. They should have the appropriate authority.
â–¶ Have a budget. If your organization is committed to community relations, then back it up with a budget. Be prepared to pay for meeting space, meals, transportation, advertisements introducing your committee members and other administrative costs.
â–¶ Have an open mind. Be prepared that initial discussions may not be positive or pleasant. However, listening without being defensive will bear fruit.
â–¶ Have patience. Be steady and take your time with your community. This alone will start the building of trust.
â–¶ Be present. Once you start this process, see it through. Don’t commit to something and then not live up to it.
GO ABOVE AND BEYOND
Even after you have formed your community relations committee, it may not be enough. For example, when going through an environmental impact assessment, you may be required to have public information sessions which require open houses and the preparation of reports for the regulator.
As a best practice, don’t wait for a regulator to tell you how to operate. Be proactive and set your company’s guidelines to include:
• Establishing parameters for public information sessions—when they should occur, how you will advertise and communicate to the greater public about the event;
• Determine how you will include your community relations committee in public information sessions both during the planning stages and the actual events;
• Be sure that you have sign-in sheets, information packages, subject matter experts, media spokespeople and exit questionnaires available; and
• Be sensitive to the fact that literacy continues to be an issue. If someone opts to not fill out an exit questionnaire, offer to fill it out for him or her if you ask the questions. Then give the person the option to sign the form. This not only preserves a person’s dignity, but it also helps you gather needed feedback.
REMEMBER YOUR COMMITTEE
The ultimate goal should always be to promote an open, transparent and honest forum for communications with your community. Be ready and prepared to share public communications in advance of releasing to the greater public. Seek their input and ask for their advice.
Above all, be honest with yourself, your committee and your community. If you jeopardize the relationship, it may be too difficult to call on your committee and your community after the fact to support you. Even when companies make mistakes, coming clean up front results in supporters standing by you in both good and bad times. PRN
[This article was adapted from PR News’ Corporate Social Responsibility & Green PR Guidebook, Vol. 5 . To order go prnewsonline.com/store/65.html.]
Heather-Anne MacLean is the senior community manager for Radian6. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.