The phrase “community relations,” narrowly understood, simply describes a company’s interactions with the community in which it resides. The use of this phrase by businesses, the media, and students of business, however, almost always signifies something more than ordinary relationships and includes voluntary actions that either are (or can be interpreted as) done just for the good of the community. This produces ambiguities and conflicts. A strictly “free market” view of business defines a company as working for its stockholders under law; any charitable work or contributions are thus shorting what stockholders are due. A more modern view, which arose in the 1960s under the rubric of “social responsibility,” defines corporations as involved in, indeed responsible for, achieving social goods over and above profits.
Ambiguity also arises from the fact that many businesses are small and, in effect, the extensions of one or two individuals who are viewed as autonomous persons— while large corporations are collectives managed by hired functionaries. Two definitions of community relations are thus equally correct. One defines community relations as the corporation’s unforced contributions to the community. The other makes community relations a branch of public relations—a form of communications.
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Community relations may be the consequence of a generous corporate culture in which relations just happen to be helpful. Thus a company may have acquired a good reputation because it is always ready to help when asked in different ways—through people, money, or providing equipment. Managers at all levels understand in advance that this is sanctioned and approved. It is a corporate tradition, the way that things are done.
In another company, community relations may take a much more publicly visible form. The company will be proactively generous. It may sponsor an annual festival, for instance; it may be the chief support of a famous hospital or research center; or it may be well-known for lending executives to civic causes or for taking a leadership role in fund-raising activities for the orchestra or the community theater. Such behavior is often the long, institutionalized shadow of a famous founder who set such activities going. They are still pursued with energy, at high cost, with a high level of public recognition.
In the very nature of things, it is always difficult, in such cases, to distinguish “generosity” from “corporate pride.”
Yet another form that community relations takes is that of a communications program the purpose of which is to improve or maintain a company’s reputation at least cost; here the underlying idea is that good community relations are good for business, but the community must be “educated” to the values the company brings to it.
Under such a program, the company publicizes information about its activities. If it expands, it presents adding jobs in a favorable light. If it closes an operation, it presents its out-placement and employee counseling activities in the most favorable light. Anything even remotely associated with the community is interpreted as a contribution whether it is or not. The driving force in these cases is “perception,” and the philosophical underpinning is that “perception is reality.”
Community relations may also take a very proactive form but arising as parts of defensive strategies. Thus companies sometimes engage in or even initiate program activities, exploited to the maximum by using public relations, in order to counter a single unfavorable event or a chronic problem. A major fire blamed on poor supervision may be the triggering event; the chronic problem may be the production of toxic wastes or a strong odor that occasionally rises from its factory.
This description clearly shows that community relations is a conscious expression of corporate will and that the motives behind it become visible to the public over time. The more free the activity is, i.e., the less it is necessitated by unfavorable events, the more the community will value it; similarly, the less credit the company seeks, the more credit it will get.
Justifications And Motivations
Commenting on a survey of 255 business executives, The Boston College Center for Corporate Community Relations stated in a 2000 press release: “Half of manufacturing executives say corporate citizenship will become more important in the next three to five years and 95 percent agree that a positive reputation in the community will help them achieve business objectives.” A few lines later the press release continues: “Survey respondents agree that companies should organize volunteer programs, give grants to nonprofit organizations, and help to solve society’s problems. Despite their good intentions, however, some 70 percent of survey respondents admit they fail to consider community goals in business unit plans.”
Many hundreds of other releases, Web pages, brochures, speeches, papers, and exhortations state over and over again that community relations is “good for business.” Promoters of community relations programs link business benefits to participation thinking perhaps that businesses require a pragmatic reason to share resources.
The discontinuity between beliefs and actual behavior, however, as reported by Boston College, may be due to two factors. First, businesses may be principally motivated to participate in programs by the personal and humanitarian inclinations of owners and executives— not for business reasons (unless some problem needs to be addressed). Second, data are very difficult to find that produce immediate and direct linkages between, say, charitable contributions, organizing volunteer programs, providing vehicles for a clean-up event, or the establishment of a scholarship program—and the bottom line.
See also: Public Relations