Brian Flaherty: ‘Message, I care’: Actions, not words, make valuable community connections

This piece from Brian Flaherty was originally published by The Hartford Business Journal on February 6, 2023. To view the article on The HBJ’s website, click here.

Looking back at President George H.W. Bush, most would agree he was a remarkably effective leader in deed — but not in word.

Bush often joked, at his own expense, that he was far from “The Great Communicator” that his predecessor Ronald Reagan was — so much so that during a stump speech in his ill-fated reelection campaign amid 1992’s weak economy, the exasperated, tongue-tied 41st president blurted out, “Message, I care.”

He truly did, but people didn’t buy it — possibly because his saying so didn’t paint that picture in American voters’ minds, or because future President Bill Clinton’s laser-focused “It’s the economy, stupid,” message was on target.

In the end, Bush was never able to reconnect with an American public that had previously given him soaring approval ratings for his leadership on the world stage through the first Gulf War, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and domestic achievements that included the Americans with Disabilities Act and revamping the Clean Air Act.

The economy was hurting, the nation felt it and saying “I care” just didn’t cut it.

Herein lies a lesson for today’s business leaders looking to connect with the people and places where they live and work.

Whether you call it community relations, corporate social responsibility or “giving back,” there are effective ways to make sure your neighbors, current and potential customers, employees and other important stakeholders know that you care.

Here are four ways:

Create shared value: This is the best description and approach I have seen.

Far from simply passing out donations or “corporate giving,” CEOs who create shared value convey the notion that by operating in a community, providing productive jobs to their employees and the employees at the partner companies in their value and supply chain, they are creating value for both their company and their community.

Connect by doing what you do best: We often advise our clients to find ways to create shared value that connects to their core business.

A financial institution, for example, found ways to promote financial literacy and teach people how to build good financial habits. A world-class manufacturer made a difference locally by supporting robotics, coding and STEM programs through company volunteers.

Both companies made a much more meaningful connection to their communities and a greater impact than had they simply written an oversized check.

Engage your community: Create a program that spotlights and supports local causes by connecting your company’s people with the communities where you operate.

For example, ask your customers, employees or neighbors to nominate and help you choose awardees to gain their emotional stake in the program’s success. This approach helps strengthen your partnerships immeasurably and multiplies your impact by showing how others beyond your company can help, too.

Show, tell and share your story: The people who matter the most to you — your current and future employees, customers and partners — like to see a company that is as committed to the future of their community as they are.

Whichever approach you choose to make your own, do it, show it, tell it and share it.

History has been kind to Bush 41, because what he accomplished — and how he did it — connected Americans to who he was. It’s no different with companies looking to make a difference in their communities.

If you’re able to do equal parts of do, show, tell and share — you won’t have to wait as long as he did to be seen and known as impactful and an organization that truly cares by creating shared value.