Community Relations: New Approaches to Building Consensus

Article excerpt

COMMUNITY RELATIONS New Approaches to Building Consensus

Among the many "relations" in public relations--investors, media, corporate, employee, product and government, to name but a few--community relations is unique for its split personality.

On one hand, there are the public relations practitioners who speak of community relations as one of a number of "tools" available for advancing the corporate cause. These practitioners will typically talk about planning and executing efforts aimed at seeking approval for corporate projects that require community consensus.

"Successful community relations," states John F. Hussey, executive vice president, Hill & Knowlton, Washington, D.C., "combines positive internal management actions with an energetic and well-focused external communications effort." Similarly, Joe Epley, APR, president of the Charlotte, North Carolina counseling firm Epley Associates, defines community relations as "a mindset on the part of management. It's the unglamorous, unspectacular, day-in and day-out dedication to doing a good job."

But talk to a corporate affairs officer, and an entirely different picture emerges. From this perspective, community relations is inextricably linked with the business of corporate philanthropy. These practitioners turn naturally to discussing educational outreach programs, job training and urban unemployment, child care--in other words, solving the socila problems of the community.

"The ultimate issue for community relations professionals may be whether they can make a difference by addressing tough, national issues," summed up David Johnston, executive vice president of Westport, Connecticut-based InterMatrix USA in a speech given to the Public Affairs Council's National Conference last May.

Is there any pont of consensus between these two divergent views of community relations? Does the field actually encompass a broad range of activities, from corporate contributions to consensus building to crisis management, or should it be defined in much narrower terms? Talks with experts on either side of the community relations fence reveal a complex and still very much evolving practice area.

CR from the general PR perspective

When community relations is examined from a broad public relations standpoint, it is considered part of a process. And, in recent years, arguably the sexiest aspects of this type of community relations--issues management and crisis management--have been spun off into a separate disciplines, creating their own followings and their own experts.

No sweeping generalizations can be made about community relations and how it is practiced as part of a public relations program. It varies from industry to industry and from company to company. For some, it is a critical part of day-to-day operations; for others, it is but a "poor stepchild" of the public relations program.

Morever, recent events have caused some major rethinking of its purpose and parameters. Consider, for example, the essay describing community relations included in the 1984 version of "Experts in Action: Inside Public Relations," compared with the one in the 1989 edition. Alvin Golin, founder and chairman of Golin/Harris Communications, Inc., writing in the first editin, defines community relations as "both an opportunity and an obligation." However, it is clear from his essay, which focuses on McDonald's Corporation as its illustrative example, that the opportunity to which he refers is a marketing one, and that the obligation is not legal or otherwise mandatory, but rather a commercial imperative.

Golin outlines the CR plan objectives as, first, "to establish the restaurant as a partner in the community," and second "to build consumer trust in McDonald's." Why? To "build a reputation, to evidence a commitment, to favorably influence targeted public attitudes."

Flash forward to 1989, after SARA Title III, bhopal, Tylenol, and the flowering of issues management, crisis management, dispute resolution and integrative negotiation. …