Community Affairs: Working Towards "Win/Win" Solutions

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The concept of "corporate social responsibility" has been widely discussed in recent years. Interestingly, while this concept has received a great deal of attention, in some circles the idea that a corporation has a "social responsibility" beyond operating within the law is openly debated. But most people today would probably agree that if only for self serving reasons a corporation should make an effort to work in the local community and with its neighbors. Typically, the operating division within a company given responsibility to manage this effort is called either community affairs or community relations.

An increasing number of special interest groups are attempting to influence corporate decisions regarding hiring, purchasing, facility expansion and resources available for community use, among others. Decisions in these areas may impact the community either positively or negatively. And the corporations expect fair treatment from the local communities, as well.

The result of this interaction is a mutual dependency: What is beneficial for the corporation is often beneficial to its neighbors, though there are certainly times and situations when real or perceived differences exist between the objectives or plans of a corporation and the wants or desires of its neighbors.

For example, a company may have plans for physical expansion of its facilities, which would require using property currently used by the community as a park. On the surface, this certainly appears to be an area of conflict between the company and its community. But until all the effects of the expansion are calculated, it's not at all clear that a conflict even exists. Once all the effects are factored in, both the company and the community may end up better off. For instance, the plant expansion, while removing the recreational use of this property, may provide more jobs, more local purchases and more taxes.

The end result of the company's growth may not be a conflict at all instead, an improved and larger park may be built as the result of the healthier economic environment produced by that expansion.

Another factor bringing a corporation and its neighbors closer together is the changing role of the Federal government. In the 1980s, Federal aid to community agencies has been drastically reduced, forcing many to become increasingly dependent upon corporate America to provide the resources necessary for their existence. This dependency has led to a pronounced effort by a number of community agencies and organizations to establish and maintain lines of communication with their corporate neighbors. They know that the private sector has the resources necessary for their survival. Given this fact of economic life, a much closer tie between corporate America and nonprofit organizations has evolved and appears to be with us for the foreseeable future.

Activities And Responsibilities Of Community Affairs

Establishing a positive relationship one that will induce a corporation's neighbors (or communities) to understand and accept its goals and activities is the major responsibility of the community affairs or relations function. To maximize effectiveness, a community affairs or relations program is one which:
  1. Recognizes that a positive and continuing relationship is one in which both the corporation and the community benefit.

  2. Recognizes and is sympathetic to the concerns and problems of both.

  3. Establishes a relationship of trust and understanding between the corporation and the community.

  4. Assists the corporation in realizing its objectives of survival and profitability while being sensitive to the needs and concerns of the community.
The terms community affairs and community relations often refer to the same department or function, and I will use them interchangeably throughout this article. But it's important to know that in some corporations, two distinct departments may exist, each with its specific responsibilities.

For example, the community affairs department may have responsibility for relations between the corporation and its neighbors both in its hometown and throughout its home state. The community relations department would then be responsible for relations between the corporation and its many "publics" or audiences beyond its home state. This is simply one example of how both departments may exist in the same organization.

Keeping in mind that the various activity areas may be different from organization to organization, basic areas of responsibility for the community affairs function include:

1. Corporate Image Management

This involves ensuring that image related goals or objectives are established and that appropriate strategies are developed to accomplish them. The basic task involves two fundamentals: identifying the desired perception of the corporation in the community and identifying the real, existing perception of the corporation in the community. The community affairs function is responsible for ensuring that the community's perception of the corporation is in line with how the corporation wants itself to be perceived. I'm generalizing, of course any large corporation or organization will probably have its detractors, whether justified or not.

Community affairs activities are directed at the leadership or people of influence in a community, the significant organizations or associations within a community, and the general community at large. The various strategies and programs designed to create and maintain a positive corporate image will depend on the corporation's existing and desired perception in the community.

2. Primary Point Of Contact

The community affairs function is the community's point of contact or access to the corporation. One of the main criticisms of any large corporation is how hard it often is to "get to the right person/' Community affairs serves as a contact and communication point, allowing the community to approach the corporation with ideas, proposals, questions, requests, and complaints. Additionally, community affairs ensure that appropriate corporate representatives are visible and meaningfully involved in organizations and activities throughout the community.

Community affairs staffs are assigned to contact people and organizations within the community and are responsible for frequent contact with these individuals and groups. The purpose of these meetings or contacts is two fold: to share information with the community about the corporation and to learn what is going on within the community. Receiving information from the community is very important, as it allows the corporation to identify opportunities or problems at an early stage. Once the information is received, it can be analyzed as to its potential positive or negative impact on the corporation.

3. Organization Or Association Involvement

Organizations and associations at the local, state and national levels offer a corporation the opportunity to create and maintain friendship and support with influential contacts. Community affairs may be assigned to develop and maintain these contacts at any or all of these levels beyond simply maintaining contact, the corporation may elect to more actively participate with the association or organization advertising in an organization's local, state or national publication, hosting receptions or hospitality suites, presenting awards, and giving away promotional items at the organization's meetings are all examples of this type of involvement. The extent of a corporation's involvement with various organizations or associations is often determined by the business nature of the corporation. Typically, those with a product to sell, one for which name recognition is especially important, participate with organizations at the state and national level.

4. Corporate Philanthropy

Charitable contributions from corporations to worthy nonprofit organizations will often be managed by the community affairs department. Given changes in the role that government has played in funding these organizations, corporate America is increasingly being asked to provide resources to ensure their continued existence. A community affair is challenged to channel limited funds designated by a corporation for philanthropic purposes in the most effective manner for both the community and the corporation.

5. Support Services To Subsidiaries/Wholesalers/Field Staff

Community affairs will be asked to share expertise and information with other staff people in the same organization or with other businesses owned by or closely related to the corporation. If a corporation has a viable community affairs function, the expertise gained through their experience can be very valuable to other related business operations. The old saying "why reinvent the

Community Affairs: Working Towards "Win/Win" Solutions

The wheel applies community affairs staff can provide needed direction, consultation or program support to these entities in their respective local communities. Often this support is provided by the development of a "Community Affairs" or "Community Relations" manual or handbook, generally a "how to" manual designed to provide direction for getting involved in their local communities.

6. Local Involvements/Promotions/Special Events

Every community has festivals or local events that it considers particularly important. These may present opportunities for the corporation to tie in with the activities and heighten corporate recognition and image in its community. The community affairs function will typically direct and manage the corporation's involvement in this activity. Often these events are connected with a fund raising activity that is important to the local community.

A good example: an event sponsored by the local chamber of commerce to raise operating funds. By participating in such worthwhile causes, the corporation has the opportunity to gain favorable visibility and recognition at the local level by being identified as an involved and helping party willing to use its resources for the good of the community.

7. Speakers Bureaus

A fairly recent phenomenon in the business world is the growth and proliferation of corporate speakers' bureaus. The speakers' bureau consists of a group of employees normally volunteers at various levels throughout the organization who present speeches to a wide range of audiences. Topics may or may not be directly relevant to the business operations of the corporation they represent. The purpose of a speakers' bureau is to create positive awareness for the corporation in its home community by making its employees visible before a wide range of community audiences.

It should be noted that some speakers' bureaus involve only select management personnel and very specific messages are intended for each speech. Others use a wide range of employees and allow them to speak on topics not related to the specific operations of the corporation. The thought here is that the corporation will get recognition by allowing the employee to participate as well as benefit through a question and answer period following most speeches.

8. Volunteer Programs

Almost any community has a need for volunteer support. Charitable organizations, chambers of commerce, local civic and fraternal organizations all need people who can help them function. This offers an excellent opportunity for corporate involvement that will both help the community and provide recognition and visibility for the corporation. In larger corporations, the community affairs function manages its volunteer program.

The above eight areas by no means cover the entire spectrum of community affairs activities, but do represent a broad range of activities that many community affairs' or relations' functions perform. The various responsibilities of a community affairs department may be determined by the needs of the corporation, the nature of its business, the type and size of the corporation's local community and the commitment on the part of top management to be a good and responsible neighbor.

Community Affairs Is It For You?

There are two basic considerations that anyone contemplating a career in community affairs should take into account.

First, because of its very nature, only large businesses are usually able to devote the necessary resources to support the activities of the community affairs function. Typically, smaller businesses ask someone to do this type of work in conjunction with their other responsibilities. So if you are interested in community affairs as an occupation, you should probably expect to work for a larger organization (either in business or in the public domain). Some people are uncomfortable working for a large organization. Internal politics, lack of recognition or appreciation for personal accomplishments, and simply being a 'Little fish in a big pond" are all reasons they cite as "negatives." If you feel that way, you may want to reconsider community affairs work.

On the other hand, of course, many people thoroughly enjoy working in the larger environment. For salaried staff, pay is generally better, benefits are better and they have access to resources oftentimes substantially larger than those available in a smaller organization. If you're one of the latter, welcome aboard!

The second consideration is the intangible nature of the work. Accomplishments, even some measure of progress, are often difficult if not impossible to tangibly measure. If you are more comfortable performing work that is readily measurable, which produces easily-identified results, and then this type of work is probably not for you. I believe that many people do not seriously consider this factor when thinking about a career in community affairs or relations. And you should.

The Education And Background I Recommend

There is no list of qualifications that are needed for every job in community affairs or relations. Specific qualifications will depend upon the nature of the particular position and its job responsibilities. Generally speaking, though, some basic skills and personality traits are important for success and happiness in the occupation.

The nature of the community affairs occupation has changed: We are more than friendly, nice people who enjoy taking people to lunch. The organizational demands made upon us require that we generally understand all facets of our employer's business, that we have a basic understanding of financial principles, production, human relations, sales and marketing. Being an "expert" in the above disciplines is not necessary. Having a working knowledge of them is. We are expected to be basically knowledgeable and able to relate to these disciplines in order to effectively perform our jobs. We are often called upon to assist them in accomplishing their objectives or asking them to assist us in accomplishing ours.

Good or bad, a college degree is viewed as a necessity. To me, possession of a college degree means that an individual has demonstrated the fortitude and discipline necessary to accomplish certain personal goals. If a person has a degree, it is usually reasonable to expect that he or she is at least proficient in reading and writing.

A degree in journalism used to be considered a necessity in any public relations specialty. This seems to be changing. In my opinion a degree in communication, journalism, management or business would be equally desirable.

In several cases, an advanced degree is thought to be necessary. Although I may be in the minority, I place much more value on experience than on an advanced degree.

Communication skills are imperative. These skills are the tools of the trade. Without them, it would be like a carpenter attempting to build a house with nothing but a hammer. The ability to make sense out of complex situations and clearly explain the situation is an essential one. Relating to people, both inside and outside the organization is a daily task. Understanding-or at least attempting to understand-why people do and think what they do is valuable. In this field, you often have to put yourself "in the other's shoes"

Establishing and maintaining credibility within your own organization and within the community are a must. People must be able to depend upon you for a truthful answer. They must also be able to expect that you will keep your commitments and that you will, in fact, actually do what you've said you will do. This has to be a part of your personality and style of operation.

Last, but not least, keep your skill levels current. Stay abreast of new developments in the field through reading professional literature, staying in touch with your contacts, and taking training classes. In this age of computers, with access to huge volumes of information never before readily available, staying up on what's happening is important.

How To Get Into Community Affairs

For some reason, a lot of people seem to have decided that this field, or one closely related to it, is the only one for them. That makes entry-level jobs very competitive.

I often advise people to first consider the type of organization for which they wish to work. Another important consideration is location. Living where one is comfortable and happy is very important. Sometimes it's not possible to live exactly where one wants because of the realities of the business world. This type of work usually requires working for a large organization. Most large organizations are in or near population centers. These are important things to think through when beginning a career search.

Be active in any business or professional organizations you can. This will help you stay better informed and create a credible, positive image with people who may be in a position to help you down the road. Professional organizations sometimes have some type of "job line" which can alert you to openings.

Establishing contacts through such organizations can most be helpful. Most call it "networking" (a term I personally dislike but for which I haven't found a better substitute). These people can help by alerting you to opportunities of which you might be unaware. They can also serve as valuable references.

Trying to get a first job in the field can be frustrating. The old Catch-22-"all of the jobs require experience, but if no one will hire me now, will I ever get the experience?"- Often true. This is where persistence pays off. Think about getting into an organization in another field or position. This approach may offer the opportunity to transfer into the job at some point down the road. It also allows you to establish credibility and "show your stuff."

An internship is an excellent way to not only learn more about the field but to meet contacts who may be helpful when you start that job search.

Finding and working with a credible "head hunter" is another option to consider. Be careful. Any yellow pages will list the names of several employment agencies. Use your contacts to guide you towards a agency which knows the field and has the necessary contacts to effectively help you find the right job. Professional organizations can be of help in locating a "head hunter" who may be helpful in your job search.

Perhaps the best advice anyone could offer is to be persistent. Do not give up after a few disappointments. Look at your job search as you would any full-time job. In fact, you should consider your job search a full-time job.

What To Expect In Salary

What you can expect in salary will depend upon several factors. The nature of the industry, size and location of the corporation, whether it's in the public or private sector, size of the department, and the emphasis the organization places on the community affairs activity will all affect the salary level. On a periodic basis, professional publications such as the Public Relations Journal and Communication World publish pertinent salary information. My advice is not to pursue a career, any career, based primarily upon what it pays. A professional puts too much time and energy into his or her career to not find it challenging and enjoyable.

A Final Thought Or Two

A career in community affairs or relations offers the possibility of contributing to the corporation or organization, as well as the community. One of the satisfying aspects of this type of work is that it can be a "win/win" situation, certainly the most desirable and enjoyable situation. Being realistic however, situations can arise where the corporation and the community are at odds regarding a specific matter. In these cases, a fine line needs to be walked -being sensitive to the community's concerns and simultaneously representing your employer's interests can require a great deal of tact and diplomacy.

Anyone contemplating any career should carefully and fully evaluate all aspects prior to making a decision. Major career decisions are too often made at the urging of someone else or because external factors push us in a given direction. It is important to differentiate between success and happiness: "Success is getting what you want. Happiness is getting what you want."

I hope you become happy and successful.

In his current position, JOHN SEESE is responsible for managing a number of community affairs programs, especially the relations between Coors corporate headquarters and the city of Golden, Colorado.

Mr. Seese has had a variety of positions with Coors since he began working there in 1970. His experience includes management training and development, general personnel, internal communications, corporate communications and community affairs work.

A 1969 graduate of Colorado State University, Mr. Seese is active in the Public Relations Society of America and a member of IABC.
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