|Verizon's Credo, on the wall of corporate hq|
The crews were speeding in the opposite direction of safety, already on their way to help Florida Power & Light restore electricity.
Working in PR for Verizon, I knew colleagues who were, just then, staffing Florida command centers in hardened facilities built to withstand Category 5 winds. They were assessing damage and coordinating with emergency teams to provide support as soon as it was safe and possible… just as other colleagues had done days earlier when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.
Also at the same time, the roster of corporations donating funds and services in response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma was reaching impressive proportions. CNN reported that donations alone totaled nearly $160 million in the immediate aftermath of Harvey. Verizon donated $10 million, with $2.5 million as part of the Hand in Hand telethon, which included more than 4,000 employees answering phones during the benefit.
Press releases and social media posts soon announced one corporate donation after another … all the way up to Walmart upping its initial $20 million commitment to $30 million.
Cars honked and flashed their headlights in appreciation at the Con Ed trucks. In my own car on Sirius XM’s new Beatles channel, Paul McCartney sang, “Money can’t buy me love.”
I wondered, was “buying love” what corporate America was trying to do? Was this outpouring of support for Floridians and Texans really just marketing in sheep’s clothing?
Consider the recent wave of CEO activism on political issues. TheStreet’s Tucker Higgins wrote that it’s been a banner year for public position-taking among U.S. corporations. For example, the President’s immigration policy sparked dozens of CEOs to issue public statements.
This is especially interesting in the context of a recent Weber Shandwick finding: more than half of surveyed millennials said they were more likely to buy products from a company led by a CEO who shares their values on social issues. An ancillary benefit is that CEOs who express socially-responsible policy views can help recruit and attract employment talent – or at least social media advocacy -- from a millennial base.
This is, and should be, important to business leaders. After all, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust is in crisis around the world. The general population’s trust in all four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly.
Without an authentic connection to customers on a human level, business leaders today risk a consumer sentiment exemplified by corrupt Sen. Geary in “The Godfather Part II.” “I’ll do business with you,” he tells Michael Corleone, “but the fact is I despise your masquerade.”
A larger movement among businesses began a dozen years ago when another hurricane made landfall. As Causecast CEO Ryan Scott observed, “Hurricane Katrina not only devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It also shattered the confidence Americans had in their government to respond to domestic emergencies.” This, he argues, changed the nature of corporate social responsibility forever.
|Lowe's employees in Texas|
Think about it: in recent days, a grassroots effort among the business community has marshaled and mobilized an immediate, effective collection of essential services and funding to support the well-being of countless thousands of individuals. Fueled by new media, this effort has been unprecedented in scope – and its beneficiaries are not just customers, not just shareholders, but society as a whole.
I see three takeaways in this for PR professionals:
- It’s time to take a renewed pride in our profession.
I recall conversations over the years where reporters would call the PR profession “the dark side.” These conversations have been more infrequent lately – perhaps correlating with the Edelman Trust Index finding that the media is even less trusted than the business community. It used to be that traditional media fueled social media; now, it’s the opposite. This means PR advocacy is more important than ever.
The truth is, advocacy for agents of positive change is a wonderful thing. If gaining recognition for a company that’s doing good works -- with an authentic concern for customers and employees -- is considered the dark side, then call me Darth Vader.
If you’re not proud of the PR work you’re doing, you’re advocating for the wrong company or client. If that’s the case, get out. Now.
- It’s time to re-double our commitment to ethics.
September is recognized as Ethics Month by the PRSA, and there’s no better time to review its ethics code. The guidance relates to the values of advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness.... because, ultimately, our job is to help our company/client do the right thing. The best PR is built on the best business practices.
I still recall Bob DeFillippo’s words before he retired as Prudential’s chief communications officer. He was asked what he would have done differently during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to reduce the damage to BP’s reputation. He replied, “I would have capped the well faster.”
He also said, “I never had to compromise my integrity because of concerns over profit or to avoid admitting that we did something wrong.”
I can say the same. I’ve seen more mutual respect, civility and decency evident in corporate America than in general society… or even in a church parking lot. At my company, there’s an oft-cited one-page Credo that also reminds us, when hurricanes strike, “We run to a crisis, not away.”
- It’s time to be more respectful of our audiences.
Because of social media, there’s an accelerating trend in corporate PR where internal and external communications are melding. There’s good in this, but there’s also a danger… especially in times of crisis.
Press releases, tweets and Facebook posts that self-proclaim employees as heroes are counter-productive to the greater good in this new age of corporate social responsibility. Yes, there’s internal value in building employee culture by recognizing good work during crises. But, externally, a hero is a first-responder who puts his or her own life on the line in the service of others.
PR professionals need to resist self-serving external communications that make it appear, at best, a company is being inauthentic and, at worst, a company is taking advantage of a tragedy to try to gain positive attention.
In “Uprising,” Scott Goodson, chairman of StrawberryFrog, writes about the power of social movements in the business world: “As businesses become involved with the right kinds of movements – and if they do so in an authentic manner that supports and facilitates rather than tries to exploit – I believe this can help companies themselves to attain a higher sense of purpose.”
As McCartney’s bandmate once asked, “You say you want a revolution?”
Well, you know, when it comes to corporate America's response to helping other people in a crisis, there’s already one underway. It’s a revolution, PR people should know, where your work has direct and vital impact.
This post originally appeared 9/25/17 on Nasdaq's MarketInsite.
This post originally appeared 9/25/17 on Nasdaq's MarketInsite.