Have We Forgotten the Importance of Local Communities?

The modern day public relations professional has a variety of communication channels and platforms at his or her disposal, and with communications at the heart of the Winter Olympics currently underway in Sochi, the art of stakeholder engagement is becoming more and more high profile. From social media to printed media, the opportunities available for businesses to engage with key influencers and audiences are vast.

Community Engagement

However, one communications opportunity is often neglected. As 2014 moves into gear, community engagement programmes are being rolled out in businesses across the UK with employee outreach days, charity days, sustainable working, and more. We all understand and acknowledge the role of this policy as part of a wider CSR strategy and in safeguarding our corporate reputations, but have we really explored how it can actively drive business growth and brand awareness.

The local communities which surround retail outlets, production plants and all forms of business have a very large influence on an enterprises’ success or failure. From local communities rallying against new production facilities or housing associations getting the green light for developing a previously unloved area, the examples are many and varied. Investing in community and local stakeholder engagement is a key tactic and tool for businesses in many sectors.

Increasing focus on online and social media communities, which can be managed from a central HQ, means local communities can often be neglected and face-to-face contact undervalued. Instead, businesses should increase footfall, local awareness and community buy-in by directly engaging with local influencers, with school and college work experience programmes, charity days and Police endorsed anti-crime initiatives. This will allow all businesses to integrate into their local communities, becoming an active player which customers are happy to work with.
One industry where the significance of community is undeniable is automotive retail. Dealership networks are spread across local communities, but are not always an integrated part of them and with recent Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) stats suggesting the UK could become the third largest car manufacturer in Europe by 2017, the issue is closer to home than we think.

Automotive retail is an industry infamous for its stereotyped salesmen and sometimes bullish attitudes, and therefore it is vital to control how each dealership is perceived by the local communities which surround them. After all, these communities are where the majority of sales will come from, and often locally owned, used car dealerships will be seen as the more socially accepted choice. The local business which invests in the community contrasted against the international corporation seen to have little or no concern for local issues.

Breaking the clichéd car salesman stereotype is not easy and this is where we see the importance of community engagement – giving your business a personality, but not just a reflection of your global brand, a friendly personable feel, a group of people you would like to do business with.

It is important to remember buying a car (new or used), or any high value item, is no small matter and when consumers are parting with a large amount of money they want to be sure they are getting a quality product and they are working with people they can trust. Trust goes beyond warranties and corporate safeguards. We trust people that we understand, that we are familiar with and people we share things with. Dealerships and organisations who embrace their local communities, with business partnerships, educational partnerships and local media work will reap the benefits.

The recent backlash against potential fracking for shale gas and ongoing battles over Britain’s aviation capacity demonstrates this issue is not restricted to retail. Businesses are having decisions made for them due to a lack of community engagement.

Having worked on community engagement programmes in a number of different sectors, I have seen the potential rewards on offer and understand best practice for implementation. With the knowledge and expertise to roll out an effective local stake holder engagement plan, all businesses can boost their bottom line. So here are our top tips for businesses seeking to engage with their communities:

• Be Honest, you do not want to alienate your local community. Your local stakeholders should be helpful ally proving vital feedback, not a powerful group working against you. Do not twist figures or stats, be up front and focus on how issues can be resolved not hidden.

• Make sure know your community / area and the key issues and concerns that your local stakeholders deal with every day. It is easy for a large business to forget that many seemingly small issues have a large impact on small communities. If you are seen to acknowledge these problems and show respect for the areas you operate in, communities will reciprocate in turn.

• It is important to invest in local operations to earn community backing. This does not necessarily have to be financial, hold staff volunteer days in your local area or offer your office space as a potential weekend community venue if appropriate.

• The effect of engaging in your community will be hindered if is sporadic and inconsistent. Therefore, be active in your outreach, this will help position your business as a force for good not simply ticking a corporate box.

• Finally, it is important to be visual and make sure you the good work you are doing is seen. A lot of community engagement work can provide good content for social media outreach or media work.

Community is a funny thing, it can sometimes be difficult to feel that you belong, but once you are part of a community, once you have earned your right to belong, you will be looked after. So when planning for the year ahead, don’t forget the significance of local community engagement, business is about relationships, and we neglect those with the people closest to us at our peril.