Bell, let’s talk.

Dear Bell,

How you holdin’ up? Busy day yesterday, huh?

That’s a tidy sum that you raised for a very worthy cause…$6.5M – not too shabby. And arguably more important than the money is, of course, the fact that you got so many people talking about mental-health issues for a day. Only those living under a rock – or, you know, not in Canada – would have gotten through their January 25th without hearing your signature phrase. In the face of an adversary whose biggest hurdle may be the stigma associated with it, that’s a pretty great thing by most measures.

Most.

Look, I know I’m pretty cynical when it comes to the world of big business, so you’re free to take my comments with a grain shaker of salt. Really…I know I should be more willing to let things go. To look on the bright side, and all that. But…I can’t. And I don’t even have a good excuse as to why not. So while your big shiny community pursuit is certainly not all bad news, I would like to raise a little red flag to make sure that we maintain some perspective on a couple of things.

For starters, would I rather that you donate the $6M to charity than not do so? For sure. Let’s not let there be any ambiguity about that.

And do I think this particular campaign harms anyone?…Well, no, not really. I won’t bother expending the energy to consider whether there might be a single person, somewhere, who’s adversely affected by it.

But here’s the thing: I can’t help but to consider your actions in the context of what I know about the behavior of profit-driven corporations, and to be wary of what happens when people lose sight of that behavior.

Specifically? Let’s start with the ubiquitous hashtag: #BellLetsTalk

I double-checked the math and I’m pretty sure I got it right: of the 12 letters in the text string, a third of them are your name. We would agree, then, that you were quite deliberate in associating the event with your name…

That shouldn’t bug me…but it does.

Yeah, you’re the one donating the money so you can call those shots, and why shouldn’t you reap a little positive PR in exchange for a material investment in a worthy cause?…I get all that. My frustration, admittedly, is totally impractical: I’m holding you to a standard that you’re never going to meet. I would like to see companies do this sort of thing without requiring some payoff (of the blatant-PR variety, in this case) in return. I mean, couldn’t you have come up with a hashtag that didn’t have your name in it? Just as a symbolic gesture, even? For me?

Right or wrong, the fact is that when I see stuff like this, I think of the suburban do-gooder who volunteers in the inner city…then makes a blatantly self-promotional post on social media about it. So now I’m no longer sure if the contribution was more about helping others or about scoring internet points… Sure, it was made either way and that’s more than a lot of people can say for themselves, but I can’t bring myself to respect the person who’s engaging in some degree of exploitation for personal gain. (Would I still rather the contribution get made than not at all? Sure I would. But my not being a curmudgeon about this wouldn’t be very much fun.)

But I digress. So Bell, let’s talk about PR in the corporate setting, for a minute. The stakes are undoubtedly higher there – you’re certainly not just in the market for Facebook ‘likes’. Here’s where what I know about the behavior of big corporations comes into play: there is no way you would be giving $6M to charity if you didn’t think you’d be reaping more economic value than that in return.

How do I know this? Because profit-seeking corporations have no empathy. They have no social conscience. They have no altruistic inclination. They have a never-ending hunger for profit, and that’s it.

Those who disagree with that assessment will think about all the familiar corporations doing all the familiar things in the community, in support of all sorts of great causes. And thank goodness for those cash outlays, because I’m sure there are many organizations and events that wouldn’t run without them. If that’s all that the skeptic to my view is considering, though, then they’re forgetting the very pointed conversation that will have happened around a boardroom table, before and after each and every one of those community pursuits. The conversation about how much the contribution is going to cost, and what the expected value of the PR benefit will be in return.

I don’t have videotape of these conversations, so I can’t prove it to you. I just believe I know enough about big business to know that there is no scenario in which the conversation consists simply of: “we’re doing a thing that’s a net money loser and that’s cool”. It may well be a money loser up front – I’m not debating that. But somewhere, someone has estimated (or explicitly measured) that the long-run image-related benefits of the contribution will more than make up for the up-front expense…That’s just the way profit-driven corporations work: if they lose money, or even progressively make less, they go into a death spiral of cutting costs, losing ground to their competition, cutting more costs, losing more ground, etc.

(Note: there are corporations who don’t exhibit this behavior. They’re called non-profits.)

But I’m being overly critical, Bell. As I said, I don’t think your recent campaign was harmful to anyone – at least nowhere near directly. My comments above don’t take away from the fact that your $6M donation will, I’m sure, be put to good use. And, really, so what if you end up netting $7M in spin-off economic gain from it? Other corporations should actually take note: do good things and you will be rewarded.

Here’s the ‘so what’: my concern, at its core, is about the very real, very dangerous consequences of losing sight of the faceless corporation’s bottom-line motive. So Bell, let’s talk about what happens if people get lulled into forgetting that profit is your chief objective.

If you forget that Coca Cola wants to make as much money as possible, you will not question their sponsorship of a nutrition-industry summit and may believe them when they tell you that a can of sugar water is no more harmful than the caloric equivalent in broccoli. (You may even overlook the fact that the ‘study’ they quote was led by someone on their payroll.*) If you forget that ABC Oil Co. has profit-thirsty shareholders, you may smile at the photo of its CEO planting a tree and forget about its expenditure on lobbying to discourage the development of alternative energy sources.

(*Sugar is on the brain. Check out the documentary called Sugar Coated on Netflix. It’s a gooder.)

Now, Bell, you’re probably confused…On the one hand, I seem angry; on the other, I appear to hold onto the hope – however faint – that your corporate brethren may one day change their ways. Heck, I’m confused too: it’s a funny thing to be both a cynic and an idealist. Not sure how I wound up here.

I’m cynical of the motives of any corporation, because – as the old observation goes – if you were to note the attributes of your average profit-seeking enterprise and imagine a person with the same traits, that person would unquestionably be deemed a sociopath. And yet, I’m idealistic in my unwillingness to let go the dream of a world in which big business is capable of aiming for things other than max profit.

I wanted to be honest and bring my concerns to you directly, Bell. I’ve been out there, debating these views with friends. I didn’t want you to catch wind of them without allowing me to explain properly.

Please do keep setting the example for things that can be done to simultaneously benefit yourself and your community. I wish more companies would.

Thanks for the talk.

*****

 

 

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