How To Avoid a Crisis by Measuring Your Community Relationships

angry mob

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

It should include:

  • Elected officials
  • Official wannabes
  • Customers
  • Non-customers
  • NGOs
  • Town staff  (e.g., City Planner, Code Enforcement Officer, Chief of Police)
  • Local radio/TV reporters
  • Local print reporters
  • Senior citizens
  • Students
  • Academics
  • Merchants
  • Opinion leaders (e.g., prominent attorneys, doctors, heads of nonprofits)
  • Other influentials (e.g., realtors, architects, major business owners)

Step 2. Determine how a good or bad relationship with each group influences your organization

You will want to create (and fill out) a spreadsheet that looks something like this:

PublicsImpact/benefitRankDo you need to measure?How will you measure?
Elected officialsCan withhold or grant permission to expand/build
Official wannabesCan make a campaign issue out of your plan
CustomersContribute to revenue
Non-customersPotential revenue, potential employees
NGOsInfluence elected officials, have the ear of the local media
Town staffCan create or reduce paperwork, grant approvals
Local radio/TV reporters#1 source of news for the local community
Local print reportersRead by the infleuntials, source of opinions
Senior citizensVoters; volunteers
StudentsVoters; volunteers; future employees
AcademicsOpinion leaders; source of interns; supply research
MerchantsPotential customers
Opinion leadersSource of opinions & votes
Other influentialsSource of recommendations

Step 3. Prioritize

You probably won’t have enough money to measure everything, so as an organization you will need to force rank these publics based on how important they are to your organization. No ties allowed. Assume you will be able, at least at first, to measure at most three to five. So the audiences that are the most important get surveyed first.

For each audience you should come up with at least one measure of a successful relationship, e.g., students perceive you to be the employer of choice in the area or local officials are more likely to vote on your side during council meetings.

Step 4. Agree on a benchmark

Since measurement is a comparison tool, you will need to compare the strength of your community relations with something. Whether it is other communities (for instance, other towns where you may have a plant) or peer companies within the same community. This is one example where I can’t advocate benchmarking against the competition, since the chances of having a directly competing company in the same neighborhood are pretty slim. So you select one or two peer organizations, of similar size and reputation,

For example, when I studied the reputation in the local community of a major corporation in Minneapolis, we selected a department store and a food producer, both of which were comparably charitable and comparably visible in the community. In another example, when an international airline wanted to gauge its relationship with the local media we compared local media coverage to coverage of the same airline in other cities around the country. Whether your benchmarks are peer to peer on a local basis or your organization in other cities, the point is to have a relevant benchmark.

One of the problems in finding another organization with which to compare your results is that so many organizations are the only game in town. In my town, for example, the University is by far the dominant institution. There are other organizations, but with the exception of the chain grocery story, they are tiny businesses. So we frequently use other towns with similar town/gown disparity like Gainesville, Florida, or Keene, New Hampshire.

If that is the case, you may need to reach out to your peers in that community to see if they’d be interested in sharing data. Non-profits and education institutions frequently take this approach, and it has an added bonus of helping to reduce costs.

Step 5. Select a measurement tool

Once you’ve decided what organizations or communities you are benchmarking against, you need to select your measurement tools.

ObjectiveAudienceMeasurement tool
To communicate key messagesLocal residentsMedia content analysis
To improve relationshipsElected officialsSurvey
To improve recruitmentLocal studentsApplications

In general, if your key source of influence is local media and you want to monitor the media, you will need to conduct content analysis. This will involve collecting articles and mentions from all the local media sources: Facebook. blogs, TV, radio, online publications, weekly papers, dailies, and, if possible, any list-services or community email newsletters. You should make sure you are a subscriber to every source of news in the area. Or, if you’ve hired a clipping agency, make sure they are tracking all of them for you.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of local email lists and Facebook pages. These enable articles and opinions to be distributed instantly, and can be a key factor in rallying supporters and protestors. A few years ago in Durham, what started out as a small meeting of a couple of friends became a 2,500-person mailing list that elected conservation-oriented candidates, stopped a major sports complex from being built, blocked progress on a number of housing developments, and generally became one of the biggest sources of influential opinion in the town.

Step 6. Analyze your data, draw conclusions, make recommendations

The next step is to analyze the content to determine whether or not your community messages are being communicated in those media outlets. You should not be reading and analyzing the content yourself. First of all, most professional communicators can spot a key message a mile away, and secondly, we are generally news junkies and do not read articles like normal human beings. We spot nuances, recognize bylines, and generally read articles far more thoroughly than your average local resident does. And of course, chances are good you are not a local resident, so you can’t possibly understand what will or will not resonate with local residents. Ideally, you would find residents of the local community to read the articles.

Each article should be analyzed to determine to what extent the coverage is accurate, balanced, and fair. Are you getting more than your fair share of bad news? (That’s why you want a peer organization to compare results with.) You also need to track the source of each article. Ask questions like:

  • Was it generated by your department, or from someone else in the local community?
  • Who was quoted in the article, and did that quote reflect your desired positioning or messages?
  • How visible are you?

Unlike in product PR, visibility at a local level is not necessarily desirable. It can make you a bigger target for protestors, and for charitable organizations looking for corporate sponsors. I also recommend asking your readers to note how your organization is positioned in each article. Are you portrayed as an employer of choice or neighbor of choice? Are you described as concerned for the environment or the community?

If your objective is to improve relationships with members of the local community, analyzing the media is probably the smallest step in the process. While it is important to understand what people are reading and seeing about you on the news, it is far more important to listen to what they’re saying in social media and gauge the strength (or weakness) of your relationship with them.

Special Notes for Local Relationships

Since we discussed how to measure relationships in detail in our recent February issue, we won’t repeat ourselves. However there are some specific caveats to measuring local relationships:

  • If your objective is to create an environment in which expansion of your facility is welcome, then the outcome of a critical vote is not a good measurement tool. Yes, a vote is an outcome, but once a motion comes before the town council or a local board, it is way too late to change anything. Months before the vote is taken you need to understand how officials and townspeople perceive your organization, how they feel about the issues, and where they stand. If possible, poll them regularly, once a month or once a quarter, to see how opinions may fluctuate.
  • If your objective is to insure a readily available pool of talent by being the employer of choice within the commutable area, then you will want to keep tabs on requests for applications or responses to local ads, as well as what people are saying about you on Glassdoor. At least once a year, you should survey local academic institutions to find out how your organization is perceived as an employer.
  • If you are a nonprofit organization, then donations and volunteers are clearly a logical measure of success. You need, however, to measure these outcomes on a regular basis. If the number or amount of donations is declining, you need to know why. Too frequently organizations blame “the economy” or some outside force, without any facts to back up the assertion. Regular relationship surveys in the community can provide the facts you need to know not just why revenues are down, but how you can improve them.
  • If you are a government institution, then bottom line measures like revenues, donations, or applications may not apply. What most government institutions want from their local communities are cooperation, trust, and support at the polls. Again, if you wait until Election Day to measure results, it will be too late to change or influence the outcomes. Polling the community on a regular basis will help you gauge sentiment and influence it in time to make a difference.
  • Academic institutions have an advantage that many other organizations don’t have: a genetic willingness to share information and a built in cadre of survey interviewers and researchers. Chances are you can collaborate with other institutions to share costs. ∞

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.