Business marries the community that it settles with. The community has to be given a reason to care for the business. Business owes its well-being and livelihood to its communities.
I recently stopped for lunch at a franchise restaurant. Nobody was at the register. A crew member told me to wait, then later took my order. She started selling donations to some cause, which I declined. When the regular cashier returned, I saw her peddling donation sales. People were blindly making donations, without understanding what they supported. The sales of those promotional pieces caused the line to grow out of the restaurant door. People were just buying the promotion in order to get through the line.
I support cause related marketing and have advised many corporations on setting up such programs. However, peddling sales to some ‘foundation’ that is named after your product and which supports only one cause is not appropriate. The store was littered with stickers. The process of selling the stickers made the waiting line longer. As a result, the iced tea had run out, and nobody checked it.
I went to their website, where franchise chains allege they want customer comments. I stated, “Having a foundation to support the community across the board is great. Who is to say that a sales promotion tied directly to your products is right? I say it is not, and I’m an expert on cause-related marketing. You people need to revise your service lines. Peddling the sales of stickers in a tackily littered store is inappropriate. I’m gravely concerned about this practice of badgering customers in support of some phantom charity; how this store does it is not right.”
The franchise owner later called. He talked all over me in a defensive manner. His voice was high-pressure, probably the result of sales training classes. Rather than addressing my concerns, he rifled over them and questioned my ability to assess community relations. I asked if he had ever heard of Thousand Points of Light. He said no. I explained what it was and that I was an adviser to the President of the United States in fostering the program. Still, he questioned my interest in community relations.
“We’re a franchise,” he admitted. “This was dictated to us by corporate. I’m sorry that you feel that way because we do so much good. You’re invited to attend when we present the donation.” I replied, “No, I’m not going to be a prop in your photo opportunity, for you to sell product.” I reminded him that it was customer donations that enabled the attention, not a corporate initiative for which they were taking the credit.
He was not listening. He was simply rationalizing a corporate marketing initiative. So too was the corporate person who later called to argue with me for daring to state my opinions. Sadly, people like that don’t care or even get that re-thinking their strategy is an option.
There are many wonderful ways where companies support the community:
- Give percentages of sales to approved charities.
- Offer certificates for product when people make legitimate donations.
- Coupon book activities with schools.
- Allow non-profit groups to present on their premises.
- Advocate community causes in their advertising.
- Sponsor noteworthy community events.
- Recognize that executive time spent in the community is good for business.
No company can cure community problems by itself. Each company has a business stake for doing its part. To prioritize which spheres or causes to serve, business should list and examine all of the community’s problems. Relate business responses to real and perceived wants/needs of the community. Set priorities. There can never be a restraint upon creativity.
My advice to companies as they create charity tie-in, cause-related marketing and community relations activities includes:
- Don’t say that you want customer input unless you are prepared to hear it.
- Franchisers should not sell sure-fire promotions to build sales as part of the worth of the franchise.
- Community support is not a one-cause (vested interest) matter.
- If you seek customer comment, do not talk over the customer.
- Do not keep rationalizing flawed strategies to your customers.
- Realize that customers’ opinions matter and that they have more buying choices than just your store.
- If you purport to have a foundation, it cannot or should not be named directly for your product.
- Do not run your “foundation” out of a corporate marketing department.
Every community relations program has five steps:
- Learn what each community thinks about the company and, therefore, what information needs to be communicated to each public. Conduct focus groups. Maintain community files. Organize an ongoing feedback system.
- Plan how to best reach each public… which avenues will be the most expedient. Professional strategic planning counsel performs an independent audit and guides the company through the process. Get as many ideas from qualified sources as possible.
- Develop systems to execute the program, communicating at every step to publics. All employees should have access to the plan, with a mechanism that allows them to contribute. If others understand what the company is doing, they will be part of it.
- Evaluate how well each program and its messages were received. Continue fact-finding efforts, which will yield more good ideas for future projects. Document the findings. When planning, reach for feasible evaluation yardsticks.
- Interpret the results to management in terms that are easy to understand and support. Provide management with information that justifies their confidence.
Companies should support off-duty involvement of employees in pro-bono capacities but not take unfair credit. Volunteers are essential to community relations. Companies must show tangible evidence of supporting the community. Create a formal volunteer guild, and allow employees the latitude and creativity to contribute to the common good. Celebrate and reward their efforts.
Community relations is action-oriented and should include one or more of these forms:
- Creating something necessary that did not exist before.
- Eliminating something that poses a problem.
- Developing the means for self-determination.
- Including citizens who are in need.
- Sharing professional and technical expertise.
- Tutoring, counseling and training.
- Promotion of the community to outside constituencies.
- Moving others toward action.
Publicity and promotions should support community relations and not be the substitute or smokescreen for the process. Recognition is as desirable for the community as for the business. Good news shows progress and encourages others to participate.
The well-rounded community relations program embodies all elements: accessibility of company officials to citizens, participation by the company in business and civic activities, public service promotions, special events, plant communications materials and open houses, grassroots constituency building and good citizenry.
Never stop evaluating. Facts, values, circumstances and community composition are forever changing. The same community relations posture will not last forever. Use research and follow-up techniques to reassess the position, assure continuity and move in a forward motion.
No business can operate without affecting or being affected by its communities. Business must behave like a guest in its communities… never failing to show or return courtesies. Community acceptance for one project does not mean than the job of community relations has completed. Community relations is not ‘insurance’ that can be bought overnight. It is tied to the bottom line and must be treated accordingly…with resources and expertise to do it effectively. It is a bond of trust that, if violated, will haunt the business. If steadily built, the trust can be exponentially parlayed into successful long-term business relationships.
About the Author
Power Stars to Light the Business Flame, by Hank Moore, encompasses a full-scope business perspective, invaluable for the corporate and small business markets. It is a compendium book, containing quotes and extrapolations into business culture, arranged in 76 business categories.
Hank’s latest book functions as a ‘PDR of business,’ a view of Big Picture strategies, methodologies and recommendations. This is a creative way of re-treading old knowledge to enable executives to master change rather than feel as they’re victims of it.