BBH's Homeless Hotspots effort enlisted about a dozen homeless people to man South by Southwest wearing Homeless Hotspots T-shirts and providing a high-quality connection on 4G devices for a donation. Much online chatter ensued. The most severe said the program backfired and was "dehumanizing" for the homeless. I feel quite the opposite.
Take Clarence, who lost his house in Hurricane Katrina and remains homeless. Aside from the token anniversary coverage of the tragedy, when was the last time those struggling in Katrina's aftermath or relief efforts made the headlines? Mark, another participant, puts a face to the growing numbers hit hardest by the economy. He is an avid chess player and lost his home after losing his job. Job loss, unfortunately, is in the headlines daily and will continue to be for some time.
Jonathan used his Hotspot status to talk about homelessness and raise money for himself and shelter Front Steps. In a video interview at SXSW, he is excited to have scouted out the best strategic spot outside a restaurant to maximize interaction with passers-by. He is engaged and enthusiastic to be part of the program. The day after Homeless Hotspots ends, what will he be doing?
Homeless Hotspots participants offered a valuable service to SXSW attendees by providing connectivity while at the same time educating people and raising needed funds. What the program also did was hopefully prompt one of the largest collections of entrepreneurs and opinion leaders in the digital space to think about how they can bring the next big thing to benefit homeless services.
Also notable is that Homeless Hotspots was created and implemented by an ad agency, not a brand. Makes you wonder what those in PR's enormous talent pool could do if they set their minds to it.
More traditional avenues of cause marketing are featured in "Cause and effect." The piece highlights initiatives that hit on today's hot buttons of traditional cause marketing - creating a connection to community, such as Yoplait's Save Lids to Save Lives, and aligning cause efforts with business goals, such as Nature Valley's work with the National Parks Conservation Association.
As cause marketing starts to test the boundaries in PR, naysayers should be wary of condemning an out-of-the-box idea such as Homeless Hotspots or at least follow up with a better idea that can help people such as Clarence, Mark, and Jonathan.
Bernadette Casey is the senior editor of PRWeek. She can be contacted at email@example.com.