Generating media attention for companies' altruism

"Last quarter, we missed earnings by a penny a share. Naturally, the media were all over it - why aren't they nearly as quick to cover the great things we're doing for our communities?"

"Last quarter, we missed earnings by a penny a share. Naturally, the media were all over it - why aren't they nearly as quick to cover the great things we're doing for our communities?"

The Donors Forum of Chicago recently convened a panel discussion on "Media and Corporate Philanthropy" that featured a blend of media, corporate communications, and PR agency perspectives. Questions much like the one above provoked a lively give-and-take between panelists and the audience that encapsulated both the benefits of media coverage of corporate philanthropy, as well as the challenges associated with generating that coverage.

As corporate citizenship has emerged as an increasingly important business tenet, many companies have explored how best to communicate about their activities in this area, including corporate philanthropy. Why is it important to communicate? The 2004 Cone Corporate Citizenship study shows that the vast majority of Americans (86%) want companies to talk about their good works. Information provided by third-party sources is the most credible, and more than a third of survey respondents (37%) cited the media as an important source of information about what companies do in the community.

Still, it takes two to tango. To the question, "Why are the media typically skeptical about corporate philanthropy?" the Chicago Sun-Times reporter on the Donors Forum panel made two specific points:

  • Given the corporate scandals of recent years, reporters often are reluctant to write a glowing piece about a company, only to see that company potentially tainted by an ethical lapse a few months later;

  • It can be difficult to sell a "rah rah" piece to an editor.

    Nevertheless, while reporters clearly don't see themselves as corporate cheerleaders, PR professionals can sometimes break through by more effectively humanizing the story and showing how their company's (or client's) philanthropic efforts are making a real difference and positively changing lives, especially locally.

    Facts and figures - quantifying the problem and the company's contribution to the solution - always help, as does offering a reporter or producer great people/storytellers, strong visuals, and unique angles. Additionally, persistence can pay - because few media outlets have a reporter or producer dedicated to the "philanthropy beat," it's entirely appropriate to reach out to additional reporters if the first contact takes a pass.

    While pitching corporate philanthropy remains a media relations challenge, there are definite signs that the media are paying more attention. The Wall Street Journal recently created a column devoted to philanthropy, and BusinessWeek launched an annual survey of top corporate givers in 2003. Additionally, a targeted 10-year media audit conducted by Burson-Marsteller showed that coverage of corporate philanthropy actually was 20% higher between April 2004 and April 2005 than during the comparable period in 1995-1996.

    Corporate America's generous response to the tsunami disaster certainly was reflected in the most recent year's coverage, but that's part of the point. Companies that responded quickly and creatively, and that actively engaged employees in determining the nature of the response, tended to catch the attention of the media.

    Beyond disaster response, a second media audit provides some insight about the types of philanthropic activity that drive media coverage. In descending order, the five areas of philanthropy that generated the greatest number of stories in select publications between April 2003 and April 2005 were education (e.g., school fundraising support), housing/community development (e.g., Habitat for Humanity), healthcare (e.g., immunization programs in third-world countries), children (e.g., Toys for Tots), and the United Way.

    While it's much more important for a company's charitable activities to align with its business strategies than to be driven by potential media appeal, the above list certainly suggests potential giving areas to which the media are most attuned.

    A number of companies, such as Takeda Pharmaceuticals North America, have seen greater media receptivity in conjunction with major community outreach projects than from strictly financial contributions to nonprofit partners. In 2004, for the second consecutive year, Takeda worked with Rebuilding Together, an organization dedicated to revitalizing low-income communities, to identify a school in the Chicago suburbs in need of rehabbing and landscaping. More than 225 employees - including top executives - spent a workday refurbishing the school. What resonated the most with the daily and weekly newspapers that covered the event? The experience of a Takeda employee who had attended the school as a child - which put a compelling face to the story.

    Bottom line: As in all areas of proactive media outreach, creativity and persistence are essential when pitching corporate philanthropy. But the benefits of success - adding dimension to the company's status as a good corporate citizen, while further building corporate reputation - truly provide a strong return on investment.

  • Greg Dunn is director of Burson-Marsteller's corporate practice in Chicago.

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