Strategies for Effective Community Relations: A Case Study on Coca-Cola’s EKOCENTER

Research shows that more companies are beginning to recognize the importance of having a good corporate reputation. As one of the world’s most recognizable brands, Coca-Cola has long recognized the value and importance of corporate reputation and giving back to their consumers. With a CSR focus on women, water and well-being, in 2013 the company launched EKOCENTER – a mobile community kiosk ran by a local woman entrepreneur that provides safe water, solar power and Internet access.

Not only did I get to hear the story behind EKOCENTER when I attended the PRSA International Conference in Atlanta last month, but I also made it the focus of my final paper for my Public Relations Theory course at Newhouse.

In many ways, Coca-Cola’s EKOCENTER initiative, which is geared mostly towards developing nations, perfectly relates to my paper’s topic – Strategies for Effective Community Relations and Practicing Corporate Social Responsibility. Anyone who knows me well knows about my passion for community relations. Working on this paper gave me the opportunity to develop trends based on research and actionable steps for any organization who’s looking to use community relations as a way to improve their overall reputation.

Here are the three main trends I’ve found that make organizations successful at community relations:

  1. Personification storytelling – What always makes stories so appealing to us are the characters behind them. The same is true for organizations who want to communicate how their community relations efforts make an impact on the people they serve. In telling the story of EKOCENTER, Coca-Cola does a great job of strategically communicating the initiative’s value while capturing the moments of all the people behind the kiosks’ success through videos and photo blogs.
  2. Proper alignment with core focus – You would expect NFL teams to sponsor the Play60 initiative because athletes are great for promoting physically active lifestyles to kids. On the opposite end, Starbuck’s “Race Together” campaign fell short in part because it didn’t make business sense for a coffee shop company to encourage its customers to talk about matters of racial justice. The point is, it helps when companies do things for the community that relate back to their core purpose. Coca-Cola realizes this, as EKOCENTER uniquely ties back to each of its three main CSR focuses.
  3. Correlating positive CSR with profits – While it’s widely known that most companies do benefit from having a good corporate reputation, no company earns it overnight; whether good or bad. That’s why it’s important for organizations to establish a solid foundation for their CSR efforts so that in time it pays off in brand equity and an improved financial bottom line. While it remains to be seen if Coca-Cola’s EKOCENTERs have made a significant contribution to Coca-Cola’s profits, it does make sense for the company on a practical level to use the kiosks to sell their beverages.

If implemented effectively, positive community relations can lead to significant benefits for an organization, among them being improved brand equity which can lead to increased profits. Even without these motivations, it’s good for organizations to demonstrate care towards their community publics. While a positive relationship with publics is beneficial, having a negative or nonexistent relationship can also impact an organization just as much.

PR Strategy: It’s Chess, Not Checkers

Last night’s class with professor Bill Jasso reminded me of one of my favorite Denzel Washington films, “Training Day.”  As we talked about the difference between tactics and strategies, I was reminded of one of the movie’s quotables, “…it’s chess, not checkers!”

When done correctly, PR isn’t a tactical race to capture all of your opponent’s pieces, similar to checkers.  It really is a strategic game of chess to capture the most important pieces – in this case, your publics’ attention – to communicate your message.

To carry out a strategy effectively, you need to follow the R.A.C.E. process:

  1. Research – The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one. When conducting research, we’re trying to define what it is that we want to accomplish by doing our homework on our clients’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as their external opportunities and threats.  While it’s not shown in the movie, Washington’s character, detective Alonzo Harris, already did his “homework” by the time he first appears in the movie.
  2. Action – Once you’ve gathered enough information about your objective, you now have to create a plan for how to reach it. The best plans are usually “smart” – or specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely – as it provides you with a way to stay focused on the task at hand. Harris created his plan with his recruit, Officer Jake Hoyt (played by Ethan Hawke), in mind based on the “homework” he did on a drug dealer whose house he had to raid for money.
  3. Communication – This is where tactics come into play in the overall strategy as communications tacticians make their living by carrying out the steps and procedures put in place. Through constant communication and reassurance, Harris is able to coax Hoyt into his plan to set him up as the trigger man for the drug dealer’s murder. Harris also safeguarded his strategy by convincing Hoyt to smoke marijuana before the shooting, just in case Hoyt decided to turn Harris in for his true intentions.
  4. Evaluation – The only way to know that you achieved what you set out to accomplish is to measure yourself against your objectives. That’s why evaluation is a crucial final step in the process as it determines how successful you really were. One could argue that Harris didn’t properly evaluate his strategy to pay off his debt to the Russians, which is why Hoyt ultimately came back to attack him and take the money Harris was going to use from the murdered drug dealer. Needless to say, Alonzo’s strategy failed as he was gunned down by the group of men he owed money to.

In public relations, effective strategies are needed to achieve a clients’ organizational objectives.  Executing this strategy involves the utilization of carefully planned tactics.  From this perspective, patience in developing strategies is the key to success in PR.  After all, “it’s chess, not checkers.”