Building Successful Community Relationships

Sep 1, 2011

The City of San Diego is home to 1.3 million people, but in the world of public affairs, it can be a very small town. Establishing credible relationships with your target audiences in an increasingly transparent world is critical to the success of any strategic public affairs program. If done right, these relationships will serve as stepping stones for your next initiative. If done wrong, the mistakes you may have made to accomplish your short-term goals can have major impacts on your long-term ability to build the community relationships you were hired to create, maintain or enhance. The next time you are working on a public affairs program, there are four essential elements that you should consider. We’ll also tell you about how these pillars recently helped us win approval for the revitalization of Flower Hill Promenade shopping center.

One of the red trolleys of the San Diego light rail system passes along the tracks located to the south of Gaslamp Quarter.

Listen – Engaging your target audiences is the first step in building a relationship. However, this cannot be a one-way dialogue. If you ask members of the community for their opinions, you need to be prepared to listen to what they have to say and incorporate their feedback where possible. For example, we recently worked closely with the community on the revitalization of Flower Hill Promenade. The shopping center’s owners conducted extensive outreach during the seven-year planning process, reducing the project twice and even re-circulating the draft environmental document at the community’s request. Showing that we were willing to listen helped us keep the lines of communication open leading up to the final vote.

Trust – Creating a level of trust between you and your target audience will be the foundation of your relationship. Do what you say you are going to do and don’t make promises you can’t keep. That’s how the Flower Hill Promenade team won the support of Spindrift, the community located directly behind the shopping center. Although the HOA initially opposed the project, we met with the association’s leadership on a near-weekly basis to establish trust and ultimately won its unanimous support. In the end, numerous Spindrift residents wrote letters, authored opinion editorials and testified in favor of the revitalization before the City of San Diego Planning Commission and City Council.

Accuracy – Part of creating trust is providing accurate, honest information to your audience. It is better to admit that you don’t have an answer than to guess and be wrong. If you mislead your audience, unintentionally or not, you will have an uphill battle to regain that trust. Because the plans for Flower Hill Promenade had been revised and refined several times, some members of the community had outdated or just plain inaccurate information about the project. We worked hard to educate the community, conducting a number of presentations to communicate the true scope of our plans.

Balance – Working with your supporters is easy. A genuine effort to engage the opposition can be more challenging but is equally necessary. It is important to understand the opposing side’s arguments so that you can ensure accurate information is being presented. Sometimes miscommunication between the two sides can be easily remedied by sitting down and talking. That was certainly the case for Flower Hill Promenade. We proactively reached out to our neighbors to address opponents’ misleading claims. Targeted media outreach also helped provide a balanced picture of the project.

Adhering to these basic tenets helped us build support for the revitalization of Flower Hill Promenade and secure an 8-0 vote of approval from the San Diego City Council. For more information about how the four pillars can help you achieve your public affairs goals, contact us at

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