When a firm does good for society during a crisis, it should hold back on the publicity
And finally as the sun comes out in all its glory in a beleaguered and half swamped Chennai, journalists too are busy analysing what was right and what went (mostly) wrong during the recent catastrophe. Even I had to start thinking about this when a journalist asked me the following question, “Is it right for companies to take advantage of a crisis and use it as an opportunity to build their own image or further their marketing efforts?” Actually, it is not an easy question to answer but let me at least try. First, we need to acknowledge that whatever happened in Chennai, a fortnight ago was the “mother of all crises”. It literally took us by storm and please forgive the pun. It affected rich and poor alike and more significantly affected all companies in more ways than one as both their employees and their customers were affected with varying degrees of difficulty. While everyone was universally appreciative of individuals who gave money or took to the streets to volunteer or rushed to the city to help from other centres, companies that went to help strangely did not meet with the same undivided approval and appreciation they deserved and that is precisely what we will be debating in this piece.
Helping or capitalising?
Different companies got into the act with an immediate sense of urgency. Zomato offered a free meal if you ordered one, Ola and Uber offered ferrying and free cab services whilst Cognizant offered an amount of Rs.260 crores as relief.
Of course, we should not forget the fact that the social media sites like Google and Facebook were invaluable in reaching out to people who were in trouble and released “safe” messages to the enormous relief of friends and well-wishers in distant places.
The mobile services too offered free recharge though in the same breath one must say that the average mobile service user in Chennai was completely irritated and annoyed at having been let down by a struggling mobile service network which was groaning and finally gave up at the most crucial times. While all of these had beneficial effects as far as the struggling population was concerned, the response to corporate help was mixed at best. Zomato was violently criticised in social media and the CEO too responded making it a free for all in social media as the company felt that it was unjustly and unfairly being singled out despite its humanitarian efforts. We are being needlessly attacked said the companies, by arm chair critics and advocates of ethics who are secure in the comfort of their own computer screens and who are not doing the slightest to help people in this hour of need and distress they claimed. That too is reasonable as we all know talk is cheap.
So is there a right way?
So what is the right thing to do and say in situations like these? There is no disputing the need to actually do something at the grass roots level and fast. It is what follows by way of communication that seems to be the question. Should companies immediately send out a press release even as they send the relief truck? Should they immediately start preening that they are good corporate citizens who care for society and afflicted humanity? I can understand companies saying that we are doing is something that is real, on the ground and tangible. They are not making forward looking statements of what they are going to do. Whilst that is justified I merely have a problem with the timing. If the company steps back for just one instant and asks itself a simple question, “why did we do this, for the publicity or for helping people in distress?” The answer will present itself almost immediately. Many of us have heard vaguely of the Bhagawad Gita and it seems strange to talk about it in management circles. But what does it say? Just do your duty without worrying about the fruits of the action. How relevant is that message in this moment of crisis when multiple choices present themselves. Should we be loud and in your face when the whole world is mourning and struggling? It all boils down to the timing and if you ask me now is not the time to seek publicity.
What sort of company are we?
Companies should reflect on their own long term image objectives. Yes we want to be seen as a company with a heart; yes we care about our fellow human beings. Yes we will put our money where our mouth is and yes we will wait for that press release. After all let us remember that building corporate image is a process not an event however attractive the opportunity to shout seems at the moment.
Think about it.