As Arthur W. Page once said, “All business in a democratic society begins with public permission and exists by public approval.” Too often, organizations think of their publics as their customers or the thought leaders of the industry. It’s not until those “publics” are picketing at the gates that organizations wake up and realize that there are other publics they need to get permission and approval from.
So they designate someone to do “community relations,” do a few speeches at the Rotary Club, participate in some United Way activities, and assume that their relationships with the neighbors are just fine, thank you. It’s not until a permit is denied, a key vote is lost, or the protesters are at the gates that someone wonders whether all that time and money spent on the “community relations” department was well spent.
Maintaining good relationships with your neighbors is common sense. If your neighbors don’t complain, then chances are their friends won’t either. But get them on your bad side and they’ll tell all their friends—and we’re not just talking the ones down the street. It will be all over Facebook by morning. Which is why it’s critical these days to measure the health of your community relationships.
The key to avoiding a crisis is to keep constant watch on the health of your relationships with your stakeholders. As long as they trust you, are satisfied with the relationships and are committed to a good relationship with your organization, most problems can easily be handled. It’s when a relationship goes from healthy to hostile that crises occur. Research by Tim Coombs and others proves that as long as your stakeholders perceive that you are trustworthy, credible, and capable of doing the things you say you can do, they are far more likely to forgive your missteps.
Like measuring any other public relationships, gauging the strength or weakness of your reputation among your neighbors must start with a list of all the publics you are trying to influence. “Community” is way too general a term to do any good.
I live in a little town in New Hampshire that is home to some 7,500 other souls. It also happens to be home to the University of New Hampshire, which adds another 25,000 people during the school year. As a resident of the town of Durham, I am technically a part of the “Durham Community.” But there are a great many other members of the community with whom I have very little in common: the ones that burn their mattresses in the street and then pass out on the front lawns of the frat houses after drinking excessive quantities of beer, for example. Just because they are students, it doesn’t mean that their votes or their opinions are any less worthy of attention, they just need a slightly different type of attention.
So how do you know if your community relationships are healthy? Here’s a six-step process with which you can do ongoing assessment of your local reputation and relationships. Be sure to note the final section, “Special Notes for Local Relationships” for some specific tips.
Step 1. Make as detailed list as possible of the segments of the community