What “expectations” really means: ten tips for improved community relations

What “expectations” really means: ten tips for improved community relations

If you have ever said any of the following three sentences, then these ten tips may possibly be just the tip of the iceberg that defines your community relations challenges:

  • “These local people are just after money from us!”
  • “We were here before them!”
  • “These residents just don’t understand how difficult it is to run a business!”

Most local people are well aware of the difficulties of life. After all, if they have problems with their business, be it fishing, farming or running a B&B, the chances are that they have less recourse to international capital markets than you do. If things go wrong, they are in real trouble. In the world of business, we can resort to PR firms, crisis agencies, technical experts and the usually infallible wisdom of a distant director to solve problems before knocking on the doors of investment banks. Yam farmers rarely turn up at Goldman Sachs looking for answers. 

Yet despite the wealth of knowledge, community issues have a habit of unraveling fast. What starts as maybe a little local boundary dispute or a small spill, can quickly develop into a decades-long dispute involving lawyers on several continents and increased scrutiny of the entire business.

Part of the problem is that many believe community relations to be easy, because we live in a community ourselves. It’s the same rationale that most people believe themselves marketing experts by virtue of watching TV commercials. Observation does not confer expertise. Life in a gated golfing community on the outskirts of Winchester or Austin, TX, does not provide good empirical knowledge of social dynamics applicable to people in Colombia or Laos.

Community relations is both a science and an art. It’s the ultimate slippery bar of soap: nebulous yet critically important to business success.

The answers to most challenges depend on the context, but most real community issues can be resolved if treated early and with consistent, constant attention. There seem to be a few simple, critical truths. 

  1. Communities generally want exactly what your company wants: economic success and social stability.
    Both business and community will benefit enormously by understanding what each other does, how, when, where and why.
    Do you know how to farm maize, raise chickens, fish, run a hardware store? Do you know what prospects the area has agriculturally, commercially, industrially?
    Understanding what they are doing will help understand what drives them and what hinders them.
    Perhaps commission a socio-economic and environmental assessment of the area, the city, the county and the region. 
    The information may even already be included in an EIA. Read it.
  2. Align your company’s future with that of the community
    Your business and the community should have aligned futures. It is somewhat meaningless to say “we provide taxes, jobs and wealth”; don’t be surprised if many are unimpressed with that. Communities have a multitude of visions, desires and needs and not all parts of society will even remotely agree with each other, let alone with your business. 
    Furthermore, communities have rights and those rights are absolutely not subsidiary to the rights of the company. 
    Sharing information about your business and your future, and explaining how you understand the rights of others, helps others to understand, even if they do not agree or like you. Do not resort to considering information as “commercially confidential” unless it really is. A lack of information breeds mistrust fast, especially when there are issues or a crisis.
    Inform. Discuss. Learn.
  3. Listen. Listen. Listen.
    We speak in mono, but we do have the capacity to listen in stereo. The beauty is we are built to listen with such quality, yet most of us choose to talk instead.
    The more senior we get, is there a tendency for us to talk more and listen less? 
    One of the best CRO's I ever employed, hardly ever spoke because she was too busy listening all the time. Her insights and her solutions were always brilliant.
    You learn and understand mainly by listening.
  4. Don’t ever use the word ‘expectations’
    ‘Expectations’ is the single most over-used word in community relations, limiting what companies plan and do with communities, suppliers, staff and even with many investors and lenders.
    ‘Expectations’ is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning, simply, “We didn’t communicate last week either”.
    Expectations are raised by a lack of information and a lack of understanding. 
    There is never a better time to start engaging with communities than yesterday. But if not, start today. Those expectations will only be raised higher tomorrow.
  5. Integrate community relations with operations; don’t isolate it
    Community relations is usually found as a department reporting to HR or CSR or Sustainability. While this encourages the development of strong functional skills and raised empathy with the community, it does frequently remove responsibility from the sharp end of the business.
    If problems are left only to a community team, then planners, operators, engineers and managers do not understand the situation, do not see the issues and so mitigation tends to become a ‘corporate’ task and is rarely fully supported in the business. 
    Operationalise community relations but make sure there are always skilled practitioners available.
    It would make business sense for every team and department to have an individual mandated to be responsible for community matters. Longer-term, individuals should be seconded for several months to a community team to build up an appreciation of the complexities of working with those outside the company.
  6. Get the grievance mechanism right
    Despite it being a requirement in the IFC Performance Standards and the Equator Principles for more than a decade now, it is still surprising how few companies and facilities have an appropriate, functioning grievance mechanism. Yet it is a wonderful device to get early warnings about problems.
    I have lost count of the number of times, I have seen the first warning of malfunctioning scrubbers or leaking water pipes or broken equipment through a complaint coming in from the community. A quick response, a quick repair and the problem is solved, residents are happy and money is saved or made. Of course, it’s not always as simple as this, but often it is.
    Over time, the responsiveness, the friendliness and the trust builds up. Everyone wins.
    It takes 12 working days to get a proper grievance mechanism in place and working. It costs almost nothing to implement. It could save you millions of dollars. Wonder why so many choose not to have one?
  7. Go past grievance management and open an opportunities book
    It is quite amazing how the local community can create business opportunities. Local residents are sometimes seen as a pesky problem, but in reality a vibrant and growing local economy provides all kinds of opportunities for big facilities and businesses.
    A stable, robust and healthy community creates a better-educated workforce but also is likely to steer communities away from reliance on one facility, mine or company. This will reduce longer-term local and regional economic problems and lessen the dependence on jobs at the company.
    Creating economic diversity is as much a positive business strategy as it is a social investment.
    Companies can use the same tools and channels as the grievance mechanism to encourage and develop opportunities: these opportunities might be focused on the local community but don’t be surprised to see good business opportunities appearing too.
  8. Think things through: what does the community really want?
    All too frequently, community relations is based upon largesse: schools, clinics, vehicles, boats, etc. But ask any community and they will usually say they want compliance with the law first of all. If a plant has yet to comply with legislative requirements, then the money would be better spent on accelerating the path to compliance. 
    While communities do support the construction of physical structures, in many cases, a more urgent need is for the more intangible elements: training, education, capacity-building and even mentoring and facilitation skills.
    I recall a community leader saying that rather than money they would prefer to have the time of managers, accountants, engineers and skilled workers to provide training and mentoring to young people in the community.
    It seems obvious, but when working with communities, by far the best method is to allow them to decide their own priorities.
  9. Communities are complex and the elite may not be representative
    It is natural to deal with elected officials and senior figures when engaging with communities, but it really is essential to have a good understanding of social structures and dynamics: frequently there are long-established elites that may not reflect the views of wider groups or all groups.
    It takes time and effort to understand the swirling currents of even the smallest of villages or communities.
    No one said this was going to be easy.
  10. You are going to make mistakes
    There is no such thing as doing it perfectly. There are many who will never like you, and those who will never agree with you, no matter what you do. Also, in any communities there are groups that oppose each other and creating a path equidistant between the two is difficult.
    Transparency, fairness, respect and knowledge will certainly win the trust of all, but not everyone. When mistakes are made – and they surely will be – those who do not like you will crow and boast, but it is important to be positive, admit the errors and mistakes, keep going and look forward. 
    Most people, most of the time, recognize that mistakes happen and are both forgiving and recognize the opportunity to learn from the mistake. It is necessary to set aside the “PR perfection” that blinds many companies and move forward with purpose.

I’d love to think that these ten tips were somehow definitive. But they are not. Not even close. Many have said and written far more, far better about community relations and it seems to me that the older I get, the more I do, the less I know and the more I learn. It seems a long while ago since I was a graduate trainee and knew everything.  

The best community relations advice I can give is to start today: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Take those first steps today.