June 1, 2013
When done properly, community relations can weave your operation into the fabric of the community.
By Therese Dunphy, Editor-in-Chief, firstname.lastname@example.org
When it comes to implementing a successful community relations strategy, there are several factors that should be considered. According to Keith Severson, marketing director of Watsonville, Calif.-based Graniterock, the company gets daily requests for donation and money and, while it would like to support each organization that asks, must target its efforts in a way that benefits both the company and the communities in which it operates. “You have to set your priorities,” he advises. “It’s not a rifle shot approach.” In fact, his guidance can be summed up by the following five strategies.
1. Take the long-term perspective.
“Graniterock has always been particularly interested in the communities we are in,” he says, “but from an aggregate management standpoint, we obviously have to be acutely aware of our upcoming permit activities and where we’re going to do our primary activities. To build robust community relations activities in those areas is really important.”
There is a big difference, he cautions, between flying the corporate flag for a single day or buying a sponsorship, and engaging in the types of activities that build a supportive relationship with the community.
“Jim West (who handles permitting and public affairs for Graniterock) always says he’s woven the company into the fabric of the community,” Severson says. West accomplished that not by beating the Graniterock drum, but simply attending and participating in an assortment of community events. “It’s a long-term proposition,” Severson adds. “You have to do things very much in a grassroots approach.”
2. Target efforts in key areas.
“You have to set your priorities,” Severson advises. “We are really focusing on education, particularly with some urgent needs such as the algebra area and kids who are in that crucial middle school stage where they can really excel or, sometimes, they stumble.”
Graniterock’s late president and CEO, Bruce Woolpert, was passionate about educational issues and helped launch an annual Algebra Academy, which hosts middle school students from around the area for a multi-day event at the company’s headquarters. In 2011, he noted that as many as 90 percent of high school graduates entering a local college required some form of remedial math. Woolpert worked with Graniterock assistant general counsel Kevin Jeffery and a team of professors from California State University-Monterey Bay to develop the program.
Graniterock provides the class materials, stipends for teaching assistants, and snacks for the students, while the university provides instructors, teaching assistants, and the curriculum. CSU Professor Hongde Hu led the most recent academy, which was held over Christmas break. “It gives them momentum for when they go back to their regular classroom,” he says. In fact, one of the students’ middle school teachers notes that a comparison of pre-course and post-course assessments shows that student scores improved by 25.8 percent.
“We’re expanding our Algebra Academy and offering it to more students,” Severson adds. The company is working with the university and instructors to offer a second session at the end of summer to provide a jumpstart at the beginning of the school year.
In addition to the Algebra Academy, Graniterock hosts an Annual Construction Career Day. The most recent event was held May 3 at the A.R. Wilson Quarry in Aromas. High school students from San Benito and Santa Cruz County high schools visited the operation. After a quarry tour, they stopped at 13 different stations where Graniterock employees talked about various industry-related careers. They shared insights into careers in trucking, automation, engineering, sales and marketing, and green building, among other potential occupations.
“They hear how we got our jobs what they need to study in school, and what kind of great careers they can find out there,” Severson says. “And they don’t all have to go through a four-year school.”
3. Engage the community.
In addition to education-related events, Granite-rock participates in many fundraising events for local organizations. “In general, we’ve found that the more you are able to engage the community and hinge the success of the event on the community’s involvement, the better you’re going to be,” Severson says.
For example, the company sponsors a Rock and Run in the Quarry event to benefit a school that sits just outside the gates of one of its operations. Severson explains that company officials visit the school before classes end in the spring and again in the fall when the new school year begins. “We give students free applications and lead them in a field stretch day to urge them to come out,” he says. “Kids are free, but for every entry that they sign up, they get all the proceeds.” The company works with the school’s parent-teacher organization to get out the word. “The more people they get to run, the more money they get for their school,” he adds. “It just works wonders.”
At the end of the race, Graniterock makes the obligatory check presentation and passes out awards for all the kids. The trophies are custom made from a test asphalt pill which has been cut in half and topped with a traditional award. “They’re absolutely unique and totally industry specific,” Severson says.
Other fundraisers include programs such as a Wag N’ Walk to benefit a local pet shelter near the company’s Hollister sand and gravel operation and open house and barbecue events to benefit the Quail Hollow Ranch County Park and the Redwood City Parks and Arts Foundation.
4. Keep it cost effective.
While Graniterock has had much success with various events, some have become cost prohibitive in recent years. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, pop concerts in quarries were popular in several markets, including Graniterock operations.
“We did a Pops and Rocks concert on the Fourth of July,” Severson says. “It was an absolute dream of Bruce’s; he was the driver behind it.” Through 2008, the company worked with officials in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties to perform a musical concert set in the quarry with fireworks set off over the site. Artists such as Kenny Loggins, Willie Nelson, and the Temptations performed at its various events.
“The quarry is a perfect venue for a show,” he says. “It’s a first-class event. Bruce would just write a check for what he deemed appropriate for the cause. It was never a break-even event.”
In the current market, big budget events are more difficult to produce, but community activities don’t have to be cost prohibitive. Severson says he uses oversize post cards to promote the events such as the quarry run, dog walk, and open houses. Simple menus such as hot dogs and chips keep food costs low.
5. Allocate the necessary resources.
Community relations efforts don’t have to be expensive, but they do require time and resources. To maximize his efforts, Severson uses two secret weapons: technology and interns.
“I try to have people opt into my email database so I’m able to build it year over year,” he says. Severson uses a combination of U.S. mail, email, and website posts to promote events.
“With social media now, I usually tweet it and post it to Facebook,” he adds. “I’m a one-man band, so there’s only so much you can do. You have to decide the appropriate channel.”
One particularly valuable resource is the intern base. “I’ve had remarkable success with a couple of really bright interns; they eat, sleep, and drink this stuff,” he says. “They get field credit, and it doesn’t cost me a thing.”
The bottom line
Regardless of the type of activity an operator hosts or the budget that it spends, the most important element is to become an active, contributing member of the community. Sincerity counts for a lot when it comes to community perception. “You have to live and breathe the communities in which we work and grow,” Severson says.
When an operator is embedded within the community, neighbors and officials are more likely to respond favorably to a request for a new permit, site expansion, or other business need. Severson notes that during such efforts, the operator can answer all of the hard questions, such as those regarding trucks, noise, and dust, but positive community sentiment often influences the final decision. “They know in their heart of hearts — both the people who work for your company and those who live around it — that you are providing as much as you are asking for.”