Beyond a Good Corporate Image

Modern businesses face more scrutiny than ever from the public through social media and constant media coverage. With this increased scrutiny, companies are under more pressure to comment on and possibly contribute to issues that their consumers care about. The instant line of communication provided by Twitter, especially, has allowed companies to respond in real time to political and social events, for fear that they do not find themselves on the boycott end of a social media campaign or protest hashtag.

Companies aligning themselves with sides in a social issue is not new, but this phenomenon certainly has increased in recent years. Some companies choose to stay stoically absent from public debate, but those that do jump into the arena can create value out of a positive public perception. While it would be idealistic and possibly naive to think that every company that tweeted or pushed a statement about the political and social events of the last few years was operating from a sense of conscientious civic duty, companies (especially major corporations with well-regarded public CEOs) can increase pressure to move consumers to their brand over another brand that may not take the risk of getting involved. When it is seen as a genuine interest, this risk taking is rewarded by consumers.

Going beyond a statement or tweet in support of a specific side on an issue is not the choice most companies make, but many do and create ad campaigns to highlight an issue. Typically these revolve around issues that do not have legitimate opposition, such as P&G’s “WeSeeEqual” and “LikeaGirl” campaignsto address problematic gender stereotypes. Some social issue-directed ad campaigns are more provocative, like Airbnb’s Superbowl “WeAccept” campaignwhich directly addresses the border and refugee policies of the Trump Administration. Airbnb took a calculated risk with this campaign, and it largely paid off – they got plenty of media attention, and will be remembered on the ride side of history.

Each company must decide for themselves whether it makes sense to comment in the first place or take further tangible action. Whether out of true altruism or an opportunistic view of corporate social responsibility, some companies choose to involve themselves more heavily, and even create separate entities or foundations that can operate purely in the social sphere, usually on a problem that is relevant to the companies’ operating industry. There have been several high-profile examples of this recently, especially in response to social issues with high public visibility.

Airbnb has launched multiple socially responsive programs that utilize their ability to connect people with a place to stay. They have multiple initiatives through AirbnbCitizen, a separate website from the Airbnb rentals site. One of these initiatives is Airbnb OpenHomes, a social impact program that partners with nonprofits to help place people in need of free or low cost temporary housing with Airbnb hosts that are willing to lower or waive their rates. This initiative has allowed Airbnb to work with the United Negro College Fund to place first-time college minority students and their families with affordable housing for freshman orientations and move-ins. Airbnb also has a robust disaster relief program that not only helps hosts prepare their homes for disasters, but also prompts hosts in the area affected by disaster to open their homes to people needing refuge. Airbnb works with relief organizations as well to help accommodate humanitarian aid workers while they work in disaster zones worldwide. These many programs represent a departure from conventional corporate operations; no one would have argued that Airbnb was socially irresponsible for not working with relief organizations to provide affordable housing to disaster victims, but Airbnb has taken it upon themselves to operate at that socially conscious level anyway. It is hard to see these programs as an insincere PR effort or simply an attempt to raise their public profile. All indications point to genuine altruism, which certainly is a relatively new, but welcome development in the private world.

Taking it a step further, some private organizations have created separate entities whose sole purpose is to address social issues completely independent from the operations of the business. Chobani created the Tent Foundation to leverage the logistics and power of the private sector to address the refugee crisis in Europe. They help companies identify refugees as a powerful resource – as possible employees, customers, and investment opportunities. The Tent Foundation has partnered with companies like Starbucks, Wework, and Pearson. So far, they have leveraged over 100 private member companies to impact 200,000+ refugees in 34 countries. The Tent Foundation grew from the Founder and CEO of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya. Ulukaya has long had an interest in humanitarian issues and believes that the private sector’s entrepreneurial spirit, networks, and resources are well poised to have a positive impact.

Hamdi Ulukaya, Image Courtesy of United States Mission Geneva via Flickr © 2016, some rights reserved

Ulukaya’s belief in the power of the private sector to contribute to humanitarian issues is certainly not a traditional corporate mindset, but has become more prevalent in recent years. Furthermore, the degree of involvement for each company has been carefully decided – it will not seem genuine or effective if a company tries to address issues that it has no logical connection to. Airbnb has addressed accommodation issues and Chobani was founded by a Turkish refugee, so their specific issue interests make sense and are free from motivation speculation. Through the pursuit of these issue interests, these companies have paved new ground in the world of private activism and should be applauded. Progress on social issues requires effort from every avenue and the use of networks and resources from the private sector are proving to be a step in the right direction.



Banner Image: Image Courtesy of Open Grid Scheduler/Grid Engine via Flickr © 2016 some, rights reserved