At a crossroads

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

When the Center for Corporate Community Relations was conceived, community relations was barely past the "buttons and t-shirts" stage of its evolution, says center Director Edmund Burke.

Community relations was viewed by most of the corporate world as separate, even marginal to the company's business objectives. The role of community relations was to be "head cheerleader" at civic functions - where buttons and t-shirts would often be distributed - set up to encourage contributions.

Community relations has come a long way since then, and so has the center, which is in the midst of its 10th anniversary celebration. The occasion has been an opportunity to reflect on the center's progress to become an international leader in the field, said Burke, and prepare for its next stage of development, one which he said will affirm the center's distinctiveness as well as its institutional ties to Boston College.

By doing so, he said, the center will meet the demands of a corporate environment which is rapidly evolving to a stage where community relations is an intrinsic part of a company's mission.

"We were there at the beginning, when community relations began to be integrated into the corporate vision," Burke said. "We have had an impact on the way companies do community relations, and we have name recognition among major corporations in the world - and, therefore, so does Boston College."

The center formally unveiled a two-phase initiative at its annual meeting last week which calls for it to pursue more aggressive strategies and broaden its services, Burke said.

"Given the changing needs of corporations and the growing competition in community relations, we feel we must expand our focus," he added. "First, we want to be the leading educator and trainer of community relations professionals. Ultimately, we want to be the leading authority on community relations and to help corporations fulfill that aspect of their mission."

Originally inaugurated in 1983 as a summer program under the auspices of the Graduate School of Social Work, the center was established in 1985 as a full-service education and research facility, with an advisory board composed of chief executive officers, corporate community affairs managers, University faculty and public policy leaders.

The center offers the only certificate program in corporate community relations and provides a wide variety of custom training programs. It also holds an annual Community Relations Leaders Conference to discuss issues relating to companies' community programs.

Currently, there are 260 corporations from the US and abroad paying annual membership fees to the center, and more than 900 corporations have taken advantage of its programs.

One of the center's most high-profile achievements, Burke said, was its publication of The Standards of Excellence in Community Relations in 1993.

"The standards cover a range of areas, from CEO involvement to policies and procedures to the adoption of a social vision," Burke said. "It is a comprehensive plan by which a corporation can be responsive to its host community."

Over the next several months the center will upgrade its capabilities to educate community relations professionals, Burke said. This will entail, among other things, the center's shift to the administrative wing of the Carroll School of Management. A faculty council, chaired by Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael Smyer, will also foster more interaction between the center and the University academic community.

By next fall, the center will feature an expanded curriculum, with advanced topics for expert community relations professionals; heightened research capabilities and resources; and more diverse, aggressive outreach to current and potential members. The center will also explore ways of providing on-line information services, Burke said.

This will lead to the next phase of the center's transition, which has been dubbed "The CR Authority" and is expected to end by 1998. When completed, Burke said, the center will offer training that is industry and function-specific, more advanced topics and courses with an international perspective. The center's research agenda will be broader, and its counseling and consulting resources will become more formalized and project-specific.

"This will be an exciting undertaking and a demanding one," Burke said. "We have to plan for these changes and at the same time manage what we have in place now. Our programs are sold out practically as soon as they are announced. But we have four different committees formed from our advisory board, and assisted by our staff, to help with the transition.

"We started out wanting to be a national organization," Burke added, "and we became an international organization. But we recognize that we cannot maintain the status quo and expect to continue being a leader. We look forward to a new beginning."

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