As we begin to launch client campaigns in this New Year it makes sense to revisit the progress of our longer-term community initiatives. What have been the strengths and gaps? What results have we achieved for our organization? Ideally, how have we benefitted the community? Where do we need to improve?
Based on dozens of campaigns developed for organizations and clients in the past, it’s clear to me that an effective community relations strategy depends upon four elements.
First, put media relations in its place. Concentrate much less on media – and instead go direct. Go around the media and directly to the stakeholders who matter most. (Don’t ignore editors and reporters, but treat them as a separate strategic audience.) Clients and bosses expect to see their mission vision and values exposed and introduced to the public through earned and controlled media, but by itself media relations is a waste of time if you are after ideal community relations. By going directly to stakeholders who matter most, you’ll identify issues and concerns important to them and also support the second element: identifying and developing the key audiences most interested and supportive of your goals.
Third, involve members of the community at every level. People want to be involved. Don’t think one-way communications does the trick. Find people among your supportive audiences who can act as ambassadors with new audiences in the ‘outer’ circles. Give your ambassadors the tools and responsibility to build new (and strengthen existing) local relationships – and take the time to hear what they are learning in the community! It can be a long slog, but investing time and attention here will result in stronger and sustained community relations.
Opinion leaders represent the fourth element of effective community relations. No matter how strongly you feel about the merits of your issue, the public will seldom if ever act on its own. Members of the public are moved, inspired and motivated by people they see as open-minded and trustworthy. Finding opinion leaders takes time, but by ‘working your network’ you’ll begin developing a short list of names that seem to surface again and again – these are the people who “get around’, who are active in their community and relied upon for advice and direction. Concentrate on individuals who are interested in your issue. Don’t ignore the political leaders, but don’t rely on them either – set political opinion leaders aside as a separate strategic audience.
All four elements depend on research, listening and two-way communications. Effective management (and consistent evaluation) of these four elements will result in a strong program benefiting your organization as well better serve the community in which you operate.