We all want to do work that matters, but is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

Two recent articles on the Ketchum (my employer) blog that can be found here: http://bit.ly/13T4xpE and here: http://bit.ly/12jR2iM demonstrate a number of ways that PR and wider communications can be used as a force for good in the wider world.

The undoubtedly good thing here is Creative for Good. Introduced by the World Economic Forum (WEF), in collaboration with the Ad Council and Ketchum, Creative for Good is an online resource for case studies of effective public education campaigns. The platform brings together over 60 campaigns from around the world on social issues such as education, health and environment, with the objective of helping smaller NGOs and organizations create their own public service campaigns.

This is a great example of the communications industry acting as a force for good. The next level is less purely altruistic, but can certainly be seen as a Very Good Thing. Many corporates, brands and their agencies have looked to position themselves as issues champions. Two of the examples mentioned in the first article are very strong. Dove’s championing of the female form, whatever a lady’s body shape, or P&G’s “Mean Stinks” are obviously commercially driven, but that doesn’t mean that the don’t have fundamentally positive messages that can engage with both potential customers but also society in general. As I say, a Very Good Thing.

An integrated campaign can therefore be run by a team that are both commercially and ethically minded. Happy, well motivated people are more likely to be more effective communicators, therefore the client gets an enhanced and more effective campaign. Everyone’s a winner. What could possibly go wrong?

The issue for me is when and where to draw the line. Are some issues just too heavy to approach by commercially focussed brands, where the primary aim is always (eventually) commercial?

I should here explain that I’ve never been involved in consumer focussed work, and the vast majority of my comms career has involved advising either natural resources companies, investment banks and sovereign states on their strategic communications, reputation management and capital markets communications. I’m also naturally cynical when it comes to other forms of communications, despite a certain personal inclination to idealism, even romanticism.

Probably too much Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Spenser. “Down these mean streets etc” not the man you are, but the man you’d like to be…

I might therefore be about to make an ill informed observation, but it think that there are certain barriers to cause related marketing, or issues based campaigns, especially if a company wants to hijack a deeply emotional issue for commercial benefit.

Two issues really jump out at me as examples of professionally admired campaigns that have left me truly cold. The Coca Cola’s Kashmiri focussed campaign mentioned in the article and the PR Week prize winning campaign on behalf of Rwanda.

It’s probably because my MA thesis partially focussed on how a number of sovereign states have dealt with ethnically based insurgencies (Ulster and Chechnya), but i believe that there are a few issues that should be sacrosanct. I almost got into a fight with an Irish American who wanted to tell me about 1000 years of English oppression. I asked when his family had left and he replied “the late 19th Century”. My response was a ruder version of “mind your own business”. My maternal grandparents left Kerry for Kentish Town (North London) in the 1950s and as a half English, half Irish Londoner, and I’m well aware of the deeply complex issues of identity and politics that are mixed up in the concept of national identity.

I’ve chatted Kashmir through with friends and contacts from South Asia, and most of them respond with a sort of emotional “you can’t possibly understand”. A colleague who is deeply committed to the State of Israel reacts in the same way as regards the issues around ethnicity and sovereignty in the Middle East. Hundreds, if not thousands of years of history combine with the current or recent memory of death, questionable military tactics and the bending and breaking of legal precedent to create a dangerous psychological arena where those that don’t understand are better not to wander.

I don’t care how well intentioned a communications campaign is, my gut feeling is that some things should be best left alone, especially if, at heart, a corporate and its brand are running the campaign for commercial benefit.

The inherent complications of the Kashmiri situation represent, for me, a barrier that should not be crossed, even if there genuinely is a belief by the corporate concerned that they’re trying to do something “good” such as “creating dialogue”.

For me, this is naive at best. At worst, it’s the co-opting of 50 years of bitter conflict, with thousands of deaths and untold misery across a subcontinent and its global diaspora. Add in that its Coca Cola, a global branding and marketing hegemon, based in the global geopolitical hegemon, and it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

I suppose the proof of the pudding is how Kashmiris feel about the campaign. If they’re happy, I shouldn’t care. however, for me, at thousands of miles distance, it feels like a step too far.

It’s the same with the famous PR Week winner for rebranding Rwanda as an attractive investment and tourist destination. Again it was a purely personal reaction, but I’ve done a lot of advisory around African mining and I’ve heard some of the stories about Rwanda from people that were there when the genocide happened.

I know that sooner or later Rwanda had to get onto the stage and tell its story. I’ve told the “rebirth / innovation / modernisation / FDI / geopolitics” story myself for a number of post soviet and MENA sovereigns myself. I get how this works.

However, after reading a lot around the subject, including the frankly horrific “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families” by The New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, I also believe that decisions were made to bury the past due to the needs of today and the future to “rebuild” Rwanda.

This isn’t just about the recent history of one country, but a region that has had a pretty tough 20/40 years, depending on how wide the circle is. Mention “Kigali” or “Kinshasa” to anyone that studied international relations, or (in my case) War Studies in the early 2000s, you’ll get a strong reaction.

I’m sure that the PRs doing the programme believed they were doing a Good Thing as well as being very well paid by the remarkably successful Kagame government. I can imagine idealistic young PRs being delighted about working on the campaign.

In conclusion, we all have smell tests and both of these have my nose twitching. I’m far from perfect having worked on diamond, gold and copper projects in Africa, in addition to other extractive and sovereign clients throughout the world, but I’ve never pretended these have anything other than tangential benefits to the world or local communities.

In conclusion, there are ways for comms to do a Good Thing and be a force for good. However, a good salesman should know when he’s being played and if he’s trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

Its stuff like this that gives us a good or bad name

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