Community Relations: Giving Back is Good Business
Giving back to the community is good for business. Whether through cash contributions, board or volunteer service, businesses that make a commitment to community will reap the benefits.
Beyond the buzzwords like CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), community relations is an essential part of public relations practice -- and a key corporate strategy for "do-good programming" that is mutually beneficial for the company and the community.
In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk about the importance of community relations and giving back. Why should business leaders care about community relations? Is this a "nice-to-have" or a "need-to-have"? What are some best practices and common mistakes to avoid?
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Should Your Business Have a ‘Do Good’ Community Relations Strategy?"
If you enjoyed this episode, check out the PRGN Presents podcast, hosted by Abbie Fink, featuring conversations about PR, marketing, and communications with members of the Public Relations Global Network, "the world’s local public relations agency.”
- Community Relations at HMA Public Relations
- "What is Community?" by Abbie Fink
- "How to Step Up a Community Relations Effort," by Scott Hanson
- "What Does Your Community Really Think of Your Business?" by Marissa Baker
Need to hire a PR firm?
We demystify the process and give you some helpful advice in Episode 19: "How to Hire a Public Relations Agency in Arizona: Insider Tips for Executives and Marketing Directors"
Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.
The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Arizona.
Welcome to another episode of Copper State of Mind. I'm Adrian McIntyre. With me is Abbie Fink, Vice President and General Manager of HMA Public Relations. Abbie, what's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Money. Giving it away, taking it, spending it, and really what does that have to do with being in good business?Adrian McIntyre:
As the lyric goes, "I've got my mind on my money and my money on my mind." That's a good intro to the show. Specifically, I think we're talking about corporate social responsibility, corporate philanthropy, the way organizations see doing good as a part of their programming. Why is this important? Why is this topic a big deal? I mean, it's become something of a buzzword. But underneath it all, there's something substantive.Abbie Fink:
Well, there's a real strategy around why, as an organization, a business, a corporate entity that you might want to do something good in the community and not just be in the business for making money for your own benefit. Now, certainly we all want to be profitable and do that. But reinvesting those profits back into the community is really a business strategy. And doing good while doing well is a business strategy and one that, as communications professionals, we regularly talk about with both our corporate clients, the ones that are making the decisions about what to get involved in, and also from the recipient side, the nonprofits and other organizations that are the recipient of that good corporate philanthropy. There's a lot of decisions that go into whether or not to accept donations, volunteers, and such, depending on your own brand and the ethical and moral things that you stand for as an organization. Oftentimes, you will see in times of crisis, corporations will, in an attempt to better themselves or maybe change the dialogue a little bit, will make large contributions to social causes and issues in an attempt to change the dynamic, which is not wrong. It's just, it might be a little bit short-sighted. Businesses that really make social responsibility, we might've called it community relations back in the day, but make that part of their ongoing business strategy, their marketing communication strategy, will see the impact of that much stronger versus just a one-off contribution.Adrian McIntyre:
I'm really struck by the power of that phrase, community relations. It seems somehow much more meaningful to me than corporate social responsibility, which sort of puts the... There's just a sense in which that is like big companies have to do good. And I actually think that's true. I don't think that's a compelling message. And I'm concerned to the degree to which that gets turned into, just as you were indicating, a kind of lip service, doing good when folks are looking, or "Hey, at least we have a recycling program. We've got our corporate social responsibility part handled." Community relations is in some ways more complicated because now we're talking about the fact that there's multiple sides to these conversations and there's engagement that has to be happening because if you're not actually talking to folks and engaging with folks, you don't have community relations. You have, I don't know, rhetoric or something.Abbie Fink:
So community relations is a big deal, or it ought to be a big deal.Abbie Fink:
It is. And I've been doing public relations and marketing for a very long time, and the vernacular has changed over time, right? And the bottom line is basically the same, but what we might've called volunteerism became community relations, became corporate social responsibility. Now we're hearing a term ESG, Environment Social Governance, which is the same thing only from more of a public sector investor environment. But all of that comes back to this idea that businesses... And let's look at it really from the corporate side here first... businesses are in business to make money. That is why we go into business. We are supporting the corporation, our employees, whatever that might be. But we are part of a larger community. And in my opinion, being a responsible business within a community is one that recognizes that we need to share and support others. And so it has evolved over time from more than just writing a check, which is clearly important, and shouldn't not be part of the system. It evolved to how do we get our employees involved in these issues that we support? So there became volunteer programs in organizations, and participation in food drives, and backpack drives, and school paper drives, and whatever those were, where your staffs could be involved with it. And all the time that is about doing good in the community, well, there are ways for that good work to enhance your bottom line and to change the way that your customers think about you in the business environment. Now, fast forward, and we're in a very different kind of cultural discussion now, and what does it mean when companies have a stance, and participate, and are very vocal in issues. And you're seeing very recognizable brands that are making sizable financial contributions. They are making very strong political statements, and I'm not talking a Republicans or Democrat, but a very issue oriented. And they're saying, we have to walk the walk and talk the talk. We believe this as a company, this is who our brand is, and we are going to be actively engaged in that. And what some studies are showing and researches is telling us is that, as consumers, we want the brands that we interact with and whether that's purchasing, or ordering from, or following in a social media environment. But those brands that we interact with, we want to align with the ones that align with what we believe in as well. And so taking all of that, how corporate community relations impacts your corporate communications is a very important strategy, and one that needs to be given as much consideration as what might be that more public relations, very business driven news exchange. And it's not that feel good, aren't we great kind of discussion. This is really making an investment based on your company's values and what you stand for and aligning that with the community and those organizations in your community that believe the same way.Adrian McIntyre:
Let's dig into this a little bit, because it seems like there's a potential for some folks to write some of this off and say, "Well, of course, we already have that." Or, "I have a CSR officer or an environmental social corporate governance report that has to come out every year, so we got that handled." I actually think you're pointing to something really interesting and I want to discuss this a little bit more. So you referred, for example, to issues-based communication, companies taking a position on issues, a variety of issues, whether it's social justice, or whether it's the pandemic, or whether it's any number of hot topics that have gotten a lot of discussion, there are presidential elections. You take your pick, right? There are companies, small businesses all the way up to big ones, who have decided... I'm assuming there was some thought that went into it that, "Hey, we're going to take a side and we're going to be very vocal about our point of view." And those opinions have covered the gamut of the spectrum. Some of them are very pro whatever the topic is, some of them are very anti whatever the topic is. And they're all gambling, if you will, on the idea that some group of people that they think is important to them is going to resonate with that opinion. So let's just talk about this for a second. There's a bunch of other things you mentioned, but let's just talk about this, taking positions on social issues from a communications strategy point of view. Good idea? Bad idea? Complexify this a little bit for me.Abbie Fink:
And it's not as simple, is it a good idea or a bad idea? It is looking at what you stand for as a business, and where have you been on those topics before? So some of the best advice that has been talked about with my colleagues and things as we've been discussing, the racial inequality and the recent issues regarding Asian American and Pacific Islander, the hatred around there, and all of these things that are ruminating out there, whatever position you're going to take, is it sustainable? And is it something that you feel in your gut, if you will, that this is what you stand for? And that regardless of the outcome, good, bad, or otherwise, it is your position, no matter what? Now, we all evolve and we all change. I mean, 10 years from now, we will have different discussions, but the idea is, if you are going to stand up for something as an organization, then are you going to stand up for it always, and not just because it's the topic of discussion today? So my advice isn't about should you, or shouldn't you, because that is part of your larger debate around the community relations projects and what you're doing, but is this who you are, and who you will always be, and who you were before this was a subject matter to discuss? And so in the cases of these larger brands that are making these very public stances, and right now the conversation is all around major league baseball moving the All-Star game. And I don't have an opinion one way or the other, but I applaud them for making a decision that aligns with what they have been talking about over the last many, many months and really many, many years, right? So a lot of people disagree with it. A lot of people didn't think baseball and politics belong together. And I don't disagree with that as a mindset as well, but it is on principle that they were making this decision. And if you look around in the last several years where very highly charged topics, transgender, unisex restrooms resulted in the moving of another major sporting event. We have seen concerts cancel in venues because the artist would not play in a marketplace because the politics of that community did not align with who they were. And there's, again, people on both sides of that. But the way I look at it is, that is that brand, that's what they stand for. And that's important to them to have that permeate through all the decisions that they make. Where we're also seeing an impact on these kinds of things is in not only the customer side, the businesses and who they're trying to attract, but they're looking at it internally in terms of the types of employees that they're attracting as well. More and more of the college graduates, let's say in the last eight to 10 years, are making as much decisions about what businesses they're working for based on maybe the salary and the benefits, as what does that company stand for. And I would rather work for an organization that stands up for X, Y, and Z, and make a little less money than work for ABC company who doesn't align with my principles and my morals. And that's a lot to take in as a business owner and a corporation to make these decisions. I think the long-term play on that is, it will come back to you. You will benefit more than not if you take the stand and you're willing to stand for it for the entirety. And so it's a tough discussion to have. It's hard to find consensus even in these larger decisions. Can you imagine being in that room with major league baseball and the owners and the discussion around that. It couldn't have been an easy decision to make, but one that they made and one that they're going to stand by, and as many folks that are out there that are disappointed and discouraged by it, are just as many that are saluting and heralding that decision and saying, "Way to go. You've got my confidence back."Adrian McIntyre:
So having thoughtful, intentional, deliberate conversations about what are we for, what are we against, and how are we going to express that in our communication, in our positioning, in our product line, in where we have headquarters and things of that nature is a very real set of business decisions, not just a superficial image and appearance kind of thing. Now, let's talk about another angle here, which is... And I want to say this without being cynical. I really think that there's something important to talk about, and we could be somewhat dismissive of, or someone might be dismissive of it. I don't want to be dismissive of it. From the perspective of a public relations firm who is tasked with helping tell your clients stories to the audiences that matter most to them, there are certain things that they can do that give you great fodder for stories, that are great media opportunities, that are great opportunities to get them some more visibility around a program, or an event, or a fundraising campaign, or something. I actually think that's great. Even though it might sound like I'm being a little dismissive, I don't want to be. I think intentionally having "do-good programming" that gives the media heartwarming stories to tell is a really good idea. And of course, you could also say, "Yes, well, if you don't really mean it, you're just doing it for the exposure, it's not meaningful." What are your thoughts on what I'm saying here, that having clients who are willing to do good in the public so that they can be seen to do good, actually gives you some great material to work with? Thoughts?Abbie Fink:
I loved what you said about "do-good programming" and that's fantastic. It could very well be the title of my blog post talking about this. But the difference in what you're talking about here in terms of do-good programming or doing it for the good is, it's becomes part of the strategy. So you know that expression, "Dance like nobody's watching you", that's what community relations is, or corporate social responsibility, or do-good programming. It's doing it because it's the right thing to do, not because we're going to get a headline or a story on the local television station. The result of doing good gets you that. And we do this regularly, we are always talking to... You look at any one of our agendas for a client meeting on the corporate side, we're asking, "What's the community relations efforts. What are you doing? Where's the volunteer program? Whatever they're calling it, how's it coming. And we're looking for opportunities to tell those stories. And so, but we're not doing it so that we can tell the story, we're doing it because it's the right thing to do. The benefit of doing the right thing is you have a good story to tell. And so when we are talking about developing programs, because a lot of organizations don't know where to start, and what should we do, and what causes should we take on, and how much money do we have to allocate in the budget and do we need to have volunteers, and all the other things that, go along with it. The questions asked are, why do you want to do it? What do you believe in? What are your core values and ethics? What do you support? What do your employees support? Are we talking about women's issues, or literacy, or animal welfare, all of the above, right?Adrian McIntyre:
Mental health, poverty reduction, school funding, there are so many things.Abbie Fink:
Thousands of things. And all of those answers are correct when you line them up with what your business strategy is. And so, to do these do-good programs because it is the right thing and the benefit to the community, and then we benefit as well is, I think the measure, the yard stick for why we do what these things are. If you are throwing money at a problem to fix something that's wrong with your company, that is not community relations, that's issues management or crisis communications. But if you are doing and allocating resources, whether those are dollars and cents or hands from your staff to go out and do some things, and the benefit then comes back to you, then that is a perfect community relations program.Adrian McIntyre:
Well, and I love what you said about dancing when nobody's watching, I think a really good way to gut check these things is, would you be doing this if nobody found out about it? And would you feel good about doing this? And would your people feel good? Would it increase morale? And would they be proud to work here, even if nobody ever heard about this? And if the answer to those questions is yes, yes, yes, and yes, and we can also get some attention for it. Great. It's likely to be congruent with our core values.Abbie Fink:
And as consumers, put ourselves in the role of the consumer, and when we read the local newspaper or we flip the channels to our local television stations, we like to hear the stories about the good things that are happening in our community. And we may not even realize that we've heard that it was this company or that organization, we just like the story, "Oh that was really nice. And that was..." And then a couple of weeks down the line, when you need to go do something, you're like, "Hey, they were the ones that donated to the animal shelter. And that's nice. That's so important to me. You know what? I need to buy a new X and they sell it. And so does this company, I'm going to go there because they made the contribution." Or, "They adopted out..." Or, whatever it would be.Adrian McIntyre:
I personally drive an extra 15 minutes to go to a hardware store whose CEO supports causes I believe in, and along the way I pass a hardware store whose CEO does not support causes I believe in. It's a little less convenient for me, but I feel good about doing it.Abbie Fink:
Right. Your business decisions were based on... I mean, you have what matters to you and you're going to invest back in the businesses that invest with what you're doing. And I mentioned earlier about that job candidates, job seekers are looking at how you do this. And what's been so interesting to me... I do informational interviews with college kids all the time. And over the last 25 plus years that I've been doing this, there's some very standard questions that they'll always ask. But recently the question has been about what is your office culture? Something to that effect. What is your... that happening? And is the pet friendly office, short stay on Fridays, whatever it would be. But what they're really asking about is what do we stand for? What do we do? And so the questions will dig in a little bit deeper. And they want to hear that we volunteer in the community. And not only with our professional associations, but with nonprofit organizations that mean something to us individually, and we serve on those boards, and we do that. As a company, we support nonprofit organizations through the work that we do, but also financially. And every now and again, although it's been more difficult of course, with Covid and not having the chance to be hands-on volunteers, but a couple, three times a year, we'll go stuff backpacks for a back-to-school drive, or we'll paint houses, or whatever it is. And it's a chance for us as a team to bond together and do something for the good of the community. And yes, we talk about it when we're meeting with prospective clients, we talk about our corporate culture and the things that we do. But when we sit back and we look at it, we're human beings who like to do good. And so we can take what we do professionally and make a difference in the community when we do that. And so it is a real life example of what this means. And honestly, I love what I do, and I also like to be able to do some things that give back. And so like when I can marry the two things, it's a perfect scenario. And I believe that this, whatever it's going to continue to be called again, community relations, do-good programming, that's what I'm calling it now, do-good programming is so important and will continue to be so important. And from the corporate perspective, that is “how do we take what we're doing and making sure we're doing good in the community?” And there's a whole another side to corporate social responsibility, community relations, which is the organizations that we support as well.Adrian McIntyre:
Now, this is something I think we really should talk about as we wrap up this conversation, it's important to remember, so your firm represents a lot of the larger nonprofit agencies, and you have worked for many years with folks who might be a partner or the beneficiary of some of this corporate programming. So what should big companies, big organizations, or small businesses for that matter, be thinking about when it comes to the way they're designing their do-good programming, with their charity partners or their beneficiaries in mind? Obviously, from the other side of the table, it doesn't always look the same, and just because a company gets an idea they want to run with, doesn't mean the nonprofit thinks it's going to be helpful. What are your thoughts?Abbie Fink:
Correct. And that's probably the toughest part from being on the recipient side is brand X wants to hand you a check for $50,000. And that's a lot of money and how can we not take this? But if we recognize that brand X has a community relations strategy, and this corporate contribution is part of their business strategy, as the recipient, you are now part of that branding effort for that corporation. And so there is an expectation from the company that's making the donation that the nonprofit will step up and help with that marketing strategy. And that's not an unknown. We all know that's what's happening. But a nonprofit organization is also has a business philosophy, and a brand to protect, and a mission that drives their organization. And so not every corporate contribution aligns with your principal. And so there has to be a give and take there. Now, probably one of the most interesting, I think, in terms of mission, business vision, and what missions and nonprofits they support, you will find, for instance, that the liquor distributors, the beer, the wine companies are some of the biggest supporters of alcohol and drug prevention programs. It seems a little counter-intuitive, right? I'm in the business of selling wine and yet I am supporting a prevention program. Well, they want responsible use of their product. And one of the ways to ensure the responsible use of their product is to support programs that also encourage responsible use. So they blend themselves together. Casinos will often support gamblers anonymous programs or stop gambling programs. They want you to come into their business, but they want you to be responsible. And if you have difficulty with that, then we want you to get help. And so it may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but in a lot of ways, it aligns very much with their business vision to do that.Abbie Fink:
But yet, an organization that is a beer distributor, may not be supporting a youth serving organization with kids that are under the age of 18, who cannot legally drink. So it may not be a good fit from either side. So just because the money's there, doesn't necessarily mean it goes to the right organization.Adrian McIntyre:
Yeah, not a lot of Anheuser-Busch programming in preschools.Abbie Fink:
Correct. And so when you're on the recipient side, and a lot of times the conversations that we're having with our nonprofit clients is, what, besides the immediate financial benefit is the benefit of being aligned with this particular organization? And what, as the recipient, do we need to do to earn that contribution? What does that corporation expecting from us in terms of marketing, promotion, publicity, et cetera, and can we fulfill on that in a way that is meaningful for us and meaningful for that corporation? So again, this is so much more than writing a check. That's the easy part. It's thinking about it from a business perspective and what it means on both sides of that check to have that out in the community. And so this is not an afterthought, this is not a “this is a nice to do” thing. If you're going to do it, it is a strategy. It is built into the core of your business values. And both from the giver and the receiver, it is an impactful business decision to participate in and implement community relations, corporate social responsibility programs.Adrian McIntyre:
What I like about this whole angle on the topic is that you're really talking about making community relations part of the DNA of the company, in the operations of the company, and the design of products and services, and the delivery of products and services, and of course, in the marketing and communication, that helps build relationships with your audience, with your customers and with the folks in the communities where you're doing business. It just makes good sense.Abbie Fink:
Right. It makes good business, right? And so I think it's.... I love working on these programs. I love when the message of a business and the philosophy of the business aligns with a social cause of wherever that is, and that both sides of that benefit. And in the best case scenarios, it becomes a long-term relationship. And I have great memories of some of the volunteer projects that I've worked on, both as our company, what HMA has taken on and those things that we've worked on with clients that are still happening, they are still going on 10, 15 years later, because they built up a relationship. And the staff becomes committed to that work outside of whatever the business side of it was, but they've become invested in it as well. And that is a perfect outcome for why you want to do what this is, and it is good for business, and it is good for the community. And you should be proud of it when you're doing it. And there are opportunities for it to be told, and you should. But one step back is making sure you're doing it. And again, it can be sustainable, you're doing it for the right reasons. And all the rest of that comes down the line.Adrian McIntyre:
Abbie Fink is Vice President and General Manager of HMA Public Relations, the oldest continuously operating PR agency in the state of Arizona. If you know a business leader, a communications director, or marketing director who would benefit from this conversation, please share the episode with them. And subscribe to Copper State of Mind, it's our new podcast. We're speaking directly to folks who could use this insight to help guide their own organizations. And we look forward to seeing you again for our next episode. Abbie, thanks so much for sharing your insights with us.Abbie Fink:
It was a pleasure.
If you enjoyed today’s show, please find and follow Copper State of Mind in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast app. You can also find the show online at HMAPR.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I’m Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Copper State of Mind.