Come in Spinner: Floods of giving and promotion

ABC Classic FM’s Emma Ayres busked in Balmain and auctioned cello lessons in Leura. 3AW’s Neil Mitchell is broadcasting live from the Spirit of Tasmania during a Port Phillip Bay cruise on Australia Day. Opera Australia is holding a concert at the Sydney Opera House.

….and lots of companies are giving time, money and services to help flood victims.

The problem PR people face in these situations is how to do what is the obvious human thing – help how you can – while ensuring that what you do doesn’t spill over into counter-productive self-promotion.

Do you just give money? Do you do something like Neil Mitchell or Opera Australia by arranging a fund-raising event? Or do you get really creative and come up with something like teaming the notoriously philistine Mitchell with the Opera Australia event? Do you think about the possible unintended optics of an event – cruising on a bay of water to raise money for flood victims could be seen as a bit like the Melbourne City Council putting their Burke and Wills statue alongside a water wall.

There is a school thought (Friedmanite for shorthand purposes) that the only role of companies is to maximise shareholder value and that companies ought not be giving away shareholder money for so-called corporate responsibility reasons. Yet arguably a company giving money or services to flood relief is maximising shareholder value if it helps gets the economy functioning again, re-opens markets and thereby contributes to corporate revenue.

Giving anonymously is often not really an option because companies really ought to be declaring what they give – to encourage others as well as in the interests of transparency – although a former client of mine, a large privately-owned company, sometimes did so because they only ever promoted activities which promoted their brands. The corporate entity was never considered an appropriate subject for promotion.

Then there is the question of how much – currently the favoured major listed company corporate donation seems to be around the million mark. A bank giving less for instance, given community attitudes, would probably be seen as miserly. The more important contribution by banks is, however, the practical assistance in terms of helping through deferred mortgage payments and the temporarily relaxed attitude to personal and corporate debt which they are providing.

Do you try to promote what you are doing or restrict your promotion to a simple media release? If you have staff in the field fixing things – a familiar situation for companies like Telstra – do you promote that? Is such a promotion a recognition of the efforts of staff doing tough jobs, a contribution to recovery or something else again?

The problem is that these questions arise because good PR people train themselves to think like cynics – what is the worst construction people can put on something? What is some sneering adolescent reporter going to ask about when you announce the gift? Will the optics be right or will they look ridiculous?

The safest course is probably just to err on the side of humanity. However, cynical one gets in the PR trade, it’s often worth remembering that as awful as Australians and Australia can be, there are times when we aren’t that bad.

One of my golfing partners, a recent migrant from Holland, looks on Australia with eyes different from most. Every Saturday on the first tee he says: “this is a great country – just look at this weather.” He doesn’t talk much about Australian politics although he does have strong opinions on Holland – that’s why he’s here.

Yet during the floods he was struck by both how well Australians react to crises and how impressed he was by Anna Bligh. In perhaps his first ‘political’ act in Australia he sent her a complimentary email. First he got a reply from a deputy chief of staff and then a reply from the Premier herself. I pointed out that the Premier has a staff preparing and despatching the replies but he pointed out that that didn’t matter. The courtesy of ensuring a response to someone in another State, from another country, who didn’t even vote here was the point.

Which raises the further question of how political PR people handle crises? It’s interesting that the media consensus is that Anna Bligh has done well and Julia Gillard poorly. Yet Gillard’s approval rating has gone up during the period suggesting a disconnect between the gallery and the public. My Dutch friend also had the answer to that – “she did the right thing keeping in the background supporting the Premier and providing support from the Government.”

…and as for Tony Abbott’s contribution? We agreed he was like Cato the Elder. Just as Cato the Elder ended every speech he made with the demand that Carthage must be destroyed, so Tony Abbott uses any political situation to call for the destruction of the NBN.

Perhaps we could also save money by re-building some of the destroyed Queensland roads as dirt tracks suitable for horses and carts and replace QR’s rail links with steam trains?

DECLARATIONS: The author has worked for banks and Telstra. He also recognises that Carthage was ultimately destroyed but wonders whether that was a good thing or not.