It's very easy to buy into the doom and gloom that can grip the independent retail industry when times get tough. Perhaps we are our own worst enemies in this respect, focusing on problems rather than opportunities.

For this reason, I was a little apprehensive about speaking at the ACS Heart of the Community event on Wednesday. It would have been all too easy for retailers to focus on the negatives, so my job as the opening speaker was to put the event on a positive footing. We have to think broadly about putting a positive spin on the convenience and independent trade's predicament - tough competition with big box formats, growing regulatory costs and consumer spending being squeezed.

How should we do that? Firstly, we need to explain our value to politicians, the media, anyone who can influence our situation. We must stress we play in local communities. It simply isn't enough for c-stores to describe themselves as community retailers unless they are actively doing the things that make a difference to local people. This means more than just being there and open, and more than just writing a cheque to sponsor the local football team.

True community retailing has to be about understanding local people's needs and doing that bit extra to meet them. I know retailers who deliver doctors' prescriptions to elderly people with mobility difficulty. Others run the local community web site or newsletter, or like me run customer panels to get closer to understanding what more they can do to make a difference. The role that the best stores play in the community is as essential as any other service and makes a great story to tell.

Above and beyond these specific ideas - and there are dozens more successful initiatives up and down the country - we have a responsibility to become civic leaders and a focal point for the community. ACS research has shown that only 17% of people view their local retailer as a civic leader. For the "nation of shopkeepers" this represents a huge missed opportunity. Councillors, the police, MPs and other local decision-makers should see local retailers as one of the most important groups to consult.

That takes me full circle back to the Heart of the Community conference. The part of this event I most enjoyed was MPs giving a master class on how to lobby locally; they discussed the forms of communication that work best for them, what a good relationship with an MP looks like, and now the profile of local shops in their constituencies could be raised.

More than 100 retailers at the event now have the knowledge and encouragement to punch their weight, not just with their MP but their MEP as well - don't forget all the legislation from Brussels.

Too often, our industry falls into the trap of being too negative - why should the Government support businesses that are failing anyway? We can also fail by not being specific enough about our concerns, not supporting them with evidence, and by sometimes "crying wolf" about the impact of legislation. We now have an opportunity to turn this around and to become smarter, clearer and more impactful in our messages to politicians. The ACS is fighting the battles with Government on countless issues. We can give it support by using our voice locally.

Jonathan James is operations director of James Graven & Sons.