A trip to Seattle this week brought the concept of businesses and organizations doing good as a means of doing good business firmly into focus.
As Waggener Edstrom CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin noted in a recent Spotlight article for PRWeek, the Emerald City is a place where “businesses aren't just interested in the bottom line, but also in how they can contribute to the community.” My visits to Zorkin's agency, Starbucks, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation certainly underlined this characteristic.
Seattle is famous for hiding its light under a bushel because local residents consider their city and its lifestyle one of the best kept secrets in America and they don't want lots of outsiders turning up to spoil it. But it's worth amplifying the benefits of conducting business ethically and meaningfully as this is a major contributor to the feel-good factor in the area that makes it such an attractive place to live and work.
The director of Waggener Edstrom's internship program, Melanie Moir, told me Generation Y in particular is driving this trend. Young people entering the PR profession want to work for responsible companies and to do meaningful work. They believe in the importance of citizenship and they expect a voice, which leads to them demonstrating fearlessness in asking for what they want.
With the recruitment and retention of talent as high a priority in the Pacific Northwest as elsewhere in the US, providing this responsible environment and giving agency staff the chance to work on clients that share this vision becomes crucial.
Across town at Starbucks, the coffee giant has gone as far as hiring a chief community officer to spearhead CEO Howard Schultz's vision of “driving results through the lens of humanity.”
The first incumbent of this position, Blair Taylor, took office last July and he is no ceremonial appointment: he reports directly to Schultz and is a member of Starbucks' senior leadership team. Taylor, who was formerly CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League, leads the company's community, government relations, diversity, and global responsibility teams, and is also on the Starbucks Foundation board of directors.
The giving back theme stretches across Starbucks' supply chain, where its enormous purchasing power can also be a force for good. In November 2011, the coffee company teamed up with the Opportunity Finance Network to launch Create Jobs for USA, a campaign designed to help jumpstart the economy by encouraging job creation in struggling communities around the US.
One example of this is East Liverpool in Ohio, once known as the pottery capital of the world but now a shadow of its former self. Starbucks moved the manufacturing of its Indivisible range of mugs from China to the town's American Mug & Stein Company, which enabled the ceramics firm to rehire workers it had let go and recruit new employees to meet demand.
The initiative puts jobs back into deprived communities but also makes good business sense. The cost is just about equivalent to using a Chinese supplier, especially as there is no lengthy shipping involved, and lead times are more flexible and nimble, so supply can be more closely tied to demand.
Other business initiatives that help Starbucks but also have positive knock-on effects for the community include its embracing of mobile payment through systems such as Square. Helping establish the ubiquity and credibility of Square in its coffee shops has a knock-on effect on small businesses in the community such as food trucks that particularly benefit from convenient mobile payment systems.
Taylor told me up to 70% of people who work at Starbucks joined the company because of its commitment to the community. He also emphasized that community initiatives have to be truly sustainable to make a real difference: cosmetic measures for show just don't cut it.
Clearly Starbucks is not perfect. Taylor concedes it still has a ways to go in its approach to the UK tax system for example, where controversy arose last year over the fact that Starbucks had paid just £8.6m in corporation tax in its 14 years of trading in the UK, and nothing in the previous three years. The coffee giant responded by pledging to pay £10m in corporation tax in each of the next two years, but this was perceived as clumsy attempt to placate public opinion.
There was no suggestion that Starbucks was doing anything illegal, and many other companies act similarly, but this tax approach didn't exactly align with the philosophy of “doing well and doing good.” “We could have done a better job of handling that,” says Taylor.
My final stop in Seattle was at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where the largest privately operated “transparent” foundation in the world is honing its communications strategy to establish a brand that can truly deliver on its mission in the most effective way possible.
It's an evolving story that depends not just on the significant financial resources the foundation can bring to bear on global issues, but also moving beyond initial noise to deliver real message penetration and engagement that ultimately produces sustainable programs. You can find out more about CCO Kate James and her team's approach in a video that will be aired on PRWeekUS.com next week.
The visit to the foundation's impressive and environmentally friendly HQ that sits in the shadow of Seattle's iconic Space Needle was a final reminder on my trip that this is a city with a DNA that wholeheartedly embraces doing good as an effective way of doing business – and it's a shining example for the rest of the country and, indeed, the world.