Several years ago, our division manager and department director went to meet a couple property owners to discuss issues they had with our inspection process. When they arrived, there were about 30 owners and managers as well as some print media reporters. They walked into an ambush.
Community relations can take the form of formal presentations to community members but what we often overlook are our daily interactions; the ones these owners and managers were concerned about.
These individual interactions are significant. Think of how we want people to interact with us. In today's environment, where everyone has a smart phone, your superb reputation can be gone in a flash. If someone made a terrible mistake, we would want him or her to acknowledge the error and describe how to make it better.
It can be very uncomfortable to admit mistakes, especially when it could cause a larger inquiry. I can see you cringing at the thought of admitting to a large breach in protocol or trust. Our immediate thought is, "This was isolated and doesn't represent our organization."
Understandably, we need to do more than that to make amends.
A method I have grown fond of is gathering a group of community representatives to air their grievances. That is what we did in the situation above. This opens the floodgates, but it will also allow the healing process to begin and, more importantly, regain their trust. It also allows you to deliver your message—your side of the story—directly to those concerned. You are making the situation personal, which carries a lot of weight with the public.
Making this type of meeting routine allows you to bring status reports back to the group. They want to hear that you are taking their concerns seriously. Depending on the severity, monthly meetings could occur followed by quarterly after things settle down. Remember, you want people to bring their concerns to you. It is much better to hear directly from a customer than on the 5 PM news.
So what happens when the answer they get is not the one they want to hear? This is unavoidable. In our case, we started using customer surveys. It was the owners and managers idea, but it was important to make the information meaningful to us. They thought we would get all sorts of negative feedback, but we consistently receive about 4.5 out of 5.0 on every survey.
Naturally, you can't please everyone, but you can explain why things occur a certain way. It might be to adhere to the law, comply with health and safety standards, or federal grant requirements.
Giving this type of insight leads to better community relations; they might even become a champion of your organization. Now these same owners and managers call us to report some of their less reputable colleagues instead of calling to complain about their inspection.