Community relations refers to the various methods companies use to establish and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with the communities in which they operate. The underlying principal of community relations is that when a company accepts its civic responsibility and takes an active interest in the well-being of its community, then it gains a number of long-term benefits in terms of community support, loyalty, and good will. "Community involvement builds public image and employee morale, and fosters a sense of teamwork that is essential in long-term success," Lisa Desatnik noted in Cincinnati Business Journal.
A comprehensive, ongoing community relations program can help virtually any organization achieve visibility as a good community citizen. Organizations are recognized as good community citizens when they support programs that improve the quality of life in their community, including crime prevention, employment, environmental programs, clean-up and beautification, recycling, and restoration. Some other examples of ongoing programs might include scholarship programs, urban renewal projects, performing arts programs, social and educational programs, children's activities, community organizations, and construction projects. On a more limited scale, small businesses might achieve community visibility and engender good will by sponsoring local sports teams or other events. Support may be financial or take the form of employee participation.
Good community relations programs offer small businesses a wide variety of benefits. For instance, they give employees a reason to be proud of the company, which increases loyalty and may help to reduce labor and production costs. Furthermore, a company with happy employees and a good reputation in the community is likely to attract highly qualified new employees. A small company also might generate new business through the contacts and leads it generates in its community relations activities. Such contacts might also make it easier for the company to obtain financing for expansion, find promising new locations, or gain favorable treatment in terms of taxes, ordinances, or utilities. Good community relations can also be beneficial in times of crisis, such as a fire or a plant closing, by rallying the community around the affected business. "Some companies don't achieve success despite their small-town locale," David Stamps wrote in Training. "They succeed because of it."
TYPES OF COMMUNITY RELATIONS PROGRAMS
According to Norman R. Soderberg in his book Public Relations for the Entrepreneur and the Growing Business, small businesses can become involved in their communities in any number of ways. Some recommended routes toward increasing community involvement include: taking an active interest in community problems; sponsoring youth activities; participating in local government; joining business and service groups; purchasing materials and supplies from local companies; encouraging community education and culture; making offices or other facilities available to community organizations; supporting local charity drives; and taking part in civic activities.
Soderberg discusses a number of specific programs designed to increase a small business's visibility and prestige within a community. For example, the company might volunteer to develop a civic program, like a charity drive or auction. In addition, the small business owner, or another company representative, could give talks before the local chamber of commerce or civic association. The company could also invite community groups to tour its plant or offices, or could make its facilities available to such groups for meetings or events. Alternatively, the company could prepare an informational videotape about its products, services, employment policies, and overall mission and make this resource available to the community. Informational brochures and newsletters might also be distributed to civic and government leaders. Another way to improve community relations might be to beautify the company's surroundings with a fountain, sculpture, or garden, so that it becomes a local landmark. Whichever types of community relations programs are used, it is important to keep the media informed about the company's activities.
Soderberg stresses that for a small business, community relations should involve more than just an annual contribution to the United Way. Instead, the small business owner should become personally involved in the effort, and should encourage employees to participate as well. A company's employees should try to represent it well in all their interactions—from practicing good manners on the road while driving company vehicles to treating customers and even visiting salespeople with courtesy. In order to motivate employees to be good company representatives, small business owners should take whatever steps are needed to boost morale. These might include maintaining an open-door policy, setting up a complaint box, or recognizing employees who are helping the community.