Though higher education institutions teach the basics of PR from textbooks, most universities leave it at that: the basics. In college, students learn how to write press releases, successfully pitch reporters and craft media lists. But, as essential as these activities are, truly exceptional PR goes beyond student learning on campus.
Going above and beyond with any PR program means encouraging and utilizing community engagement to its fullest potential. This involves not only active participation from a variety of stakeholders but also active listening and learning from PR professionals. In PR, community engagement means hearing the voice of consumers and taking their feedback into account when making important decisions to create a mutually beneficial exchange.
Listening to what key stakeholders and community members have to say allows organizations to conduct more informed and insightful research to base their strategic PR efforts. In other words, engaging your communities in your research processes will help build out more targeted and, therefore effective, campaigns.
What Does Community Engagement Look Like?
Active community engagement can come in many forms. One example is through research. Conducting a survey can be a great resource to not only hear feedback from community voices, but to also provide the opportunity to visualize the data as with infographics on social media. Additionally, this research method allows for community members to actively participate in decision-making processes, while also having the option to keep their identity private or anonymous. In some cases, this could lead to more accurate results and, therefore, more informed research and campaigns.
Focus groups with community members can also help encourage thoughtful discussion. These interactive market research sessions with small groups allow for active dialogue between various stakeholders surrounding focused questions that are designed to discuss any community issue or civic responsibility. Both surveys and focus groups, if executed properly, offer opportunities for active participation and leadership from various members of the community in conversations surrounding programs, projects or initiatives that may or may not impact them.
On the other hand, civic engagement may also come in less traditional forms such as web-based engagement. Platforms such as TikTok and Twitter allow organizations the opportunity to speak with their communities and participate in collaborative conversations surrounding important issues, rather than speaking at them in a one-sided conversation. However, even with 4.66 billion users on the internet in 2021, only conducting these conversations online may leave out marginalized, yet important, stakeholders if they don’t have access to these resources at the right time.
Whichever method(s) of engagement an organization chooses to use, what’s truly important is that those strategic efforts contribute to the end goal of community engagement: using these various methods to access and amplify the voice of the consumer on important issues and learning from those diverse perspectives to create campaigns based on informed and inclusive research.
So, Why Does Community Engagement Matter?
Like any form of communication, PR shouldn’t be a one-way street.
1. Key Stakeholders Feel Heard.
An organization’s connection with its key stakeholders and consumers should be treated like any other relationship, with healthy and effective communication as a high priority. Similarly, both parties involved should feel heard and listened to. In fact, a Salesforce study found that staff and employees who feel heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their responsibilities to the best of their ability.
2. It Allows for Diverse Perspectives.
Common, but crucial, mistakes can occur when PR professionals only listen to the voices and perspectives of the majority or certain communities that might have more access than others. However, organizations’ democratic values and methods for approaching certain social justice issues are becoming increasingly valued by consumers and community members/partners. This means that it’s especially important for diversity and inclusion in the workplace when making organizational decisions to factor in voices from various communities within one larger community. A recent McKinsey study found that the most racially and ethnically diverse companies were also more likely to surpass the financial performance of their respective national industry medians. This statistic shows that similar to how increased diversity can lead to financial success in organizations, increased diversity in research can yield holistic results for a more informed and successful PR campaign. Inclusive research will drive inclusive results when it comes time to make those strategic decisions.
3. Build Trust and Humanize Brands.
Incorporating community engagement into PR programs and campaigns also helps an organization establish trust and partnerships with its consumers and community. It can be easy to establish trust through community organizing as a community-based organization with localized roots or as a nonprofit organization with focused values. But for larger institutions and organizations, ensuring that your key stakeholders can genuinely trust you can prove difficult. However, when community members see and experience organizations actively listen to their feedback and incorporate responses to that feedback in their PR strategy, a certain level of trust is achieved.
Given the increase in skepticism surrounding large companies and brands in recent years, establishing this first level of trust and continuing to build upon that in future strategic efforts can prove especially valuable when stakeholders decide if they want to associate with your brand going forward, should the opportunity arise.
Building on to the above three points, engaging in two-way communication with active listening, valuing and inclusion of diverse opinions from more communities than one and establishing trust with key stakeholders and community members lead to building meaningful relationships and community partnerships. After all, that is the essence of PR: forming partnerships between organizations and their relevant community members and fostering mutually beneficial exchanges through effective and meaningful strategy.
Ultimately in PR, as with any career, it can be easy to skate by with the bare minimum and stick with formulas that are tried and true. But in order to achieve truly exceptional PR campaigns, it’s important to take a step back, listen and learn.