Has the September 11 Tragedy Changed the Face of Philanthropy?
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Has the September 11 Tragedy Changed the Face of Philanthropy?

“We got e-mails demanding to know why were not out there talking about this,” says Nielsen. “Employees were demanding that we say something about it."

Paul Holmes

Johnson & Johnson has a history of corporate philanthropy that ranks among the most generous in corporate America. The company’s credo, written in 1935 founder Robert Wood Johnson, articulates the company’s commitment to its communities. “We must be a good citizen,” says the credo. “Support good works and charity and bear our fair share of taxes.” So it was no surprise to find the pharmaceutical company packaging products to help in the rescue effort that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center, donating money to relief funds.
But Johnson & Johnson has always taken a cautious approach to touting its good works. Although the credo says the company should “acquaint the community with our activities,” vice president of public affairs Bill Nielsen has always preferred to let third parties—particularly the recipients of the company’s largesse—talk about the way the company meets its obligation to the community. So in the first few days after the terrorist attacks last week, J&J made no formal external announcement of its contributions, put out no press releases.
In that respect, the company was no different from many others who donated goods and services to the relief effort, and was following the advice of most public relations counselors. But that advice failed to recognize what may be a critical inflection point in the public’s attitude toward corporate philanthropy—one that demands not only that companies do something to help when disaster strikes, but also that they make an effort keep stakeholders informed.
“We got e-mails demanding to know why were not out there talking about this,” says Nielsen. “Employees were demanding that we say something about it. I found that many of our friends in the media, agencies, partner organizations, and the like, were genuinely interested in knowing how we are aiding those who have suffered.”
Early the next week, Johnson & Johnson sent out a media advisory detailing the full extent of its relief effort. Its tone was neutral. There was no hint of self-congratulation. It quoted a letter from chairman and CEO, Ralph Larsen to the company’s 100,000 employees; “These unspeakable acts of terrorism have touched all of us very deeply and profoundly. I know I speak for each and every one of us in expressing our heartfelt condolences to all those who experienced loss of life or injury to family, friends or associates. Our thoughts and prayers are with them in this time of grief.”
And the response—from the media, from customers, and from employees—was entirely positive.
“We are prepared to send product into any area no matter where it may be in the world,” says Nielsen. “We have established partnerships with organizations such as AmeriCares because experience has taught us it’s one thing to donate products and another thing to make sure those products get to where they are needed and into the hands of people who know how to use them properly.”
In this instance, AmeriCares was able to get a half-ton of product to St. Vincent’s Hospital, close to the World Trade Center, the afternoon of the tragedy. At the time, says Nielsen, “we were hoping there would be more people to treat.”
The company waited a few days before deciding how its financial largesse should be targeted, but ultimately, J&J’s contributions included $10 million in financial and product aid. In partnership with the American Red Cross, the company provided $1 million to match employee contributions on a two-to-one basis. Another $3 million was pledged to The September 11th Fund, focused on victims, orphans, widows and survivors. And, a special fund of $6 million was established to support the needs of local organizations with strong community outreach, including community health centers; mental health and counseling centers; Head Start centers; The Salvation Army; school nurses; and fire, EMT and emergency squads. 
“We communicated what we were doing to our employees around the world,” says Nielsen. “We provided plenty of information to our employees because they share our commitment to the credo and they want to know. They expect to be told that the company is living up to the credo, so they are the immediate audience.”
In the past, the communications effort might have stopped there, but Nielsen says the company started getting inquiries from the news media almost immediately. “From day one, they were working on stories and they wanted to know what the company was doing.”
The number of inquiries increased exponentially after relief workers at the Jacob Javits Center on the west side of Manhattan put together a list of supplies they needed. The list was organized alphabetically and the first item was “Aspirin/Tylenol.” Several news stories—including an item on CNN—broadcast the urgent need for Tylenol.
“We already had product out there,” says Nielsen, “but suddenly it became important to get the message out there. We were getting calls from the media, from our employees, from our customers. We decided to put out a news advisory explaining the full scope of our contributions. When we discussed it with reporters, we found many media organizations felt that would be very helpful.”

The question now facing J&J, and other companies that invest significantly in philanthropic activity, is whether the public’s heightened interest in their generosity will be sustained beyond this specific tragedy.           
“I think more people are keeping track when it comes to corporate social responsibility,” says Nielsen. “Increased interest has created a demand for information that didn’t exist before. People are keeping score, and they are not going to know you are there unless you tell them. I know it makes a lot of people uncomfortable to talk about this, and no one wants to take advantage of a crisis like this one, but if there’s a demand for information, we have to provide it.”
There’s at least some support for the notion that this might be a permanent sea change—one that was beginning to take shape even before the latest disaster.  
“It used to be that there was a fine line between providing the public with information and tooting your own horn,” says Steve Lombardo, president of the Strategy One research division of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. “But I think that’s changed. We have seen public relations professionals surprised that people are demanding to know what is being done. It’s still possible to go over the line, of course, but for the most part corporate philanthropy is being interpreted much more positively.”
Lombardo believes the trend began before the terrorist attacks of last week, but “September 11 helped move it along.” He says he expects a heightened awareness of and sensitivity to corporate social responsibility, and says companies that act quickly and proactively to fill the void.
Strategy One plans to do follow-up research to a study it produced this summer, but Lombardo says companies can already make several assumptions: that CSR will be more important; that customers will be looking for authenticity; that there will be an increased awareness of community activity. He also expects increased scrutiny of U.S. companies operating overseas, and says U.S. companies operating internationally “will be seen as ambassadors for the country.”
Carol Cone, president of Boston-based Cone, an Omnicom-owned agency specializing in cause-related marketing and corporate social responsibility, sees even more sweeping changes resulting from the attention that has been paid to the corporate response to the terrorist attacks—and the lessons the companies have learned in the process.
“Compelled by the images of brave rescue workers putting their lives on the line in the face of unspeakable tragedy, America has responded by reaching out at unprecedented levels and, quite possibly, changing the face of corporate philanthropy as we know it,” says Cone. “At the company level, the tragedy has already begun to create a new kind of bond that involves companies taking care of employees and communities, and engaging in philanthropy that strengthens the fabric of society.”
Cone is asking the same question Nielsen asked: was this unprecedented outpouring just a one-time response to a national disaster, or will it be sustained as the attack fades into memory.
“I believe it’s the latter,” says Cone, “because if anything, this disaster showed not only the strength and power of companies within communities, but how that strength and power is then magnified when those companies, their employees and communities unite.”
Cone says she is encouraged by three factors:

       Generosity, in both monetary giving and spirit: The momentum for blood donations and check writing has already begun to give way to companies wanting to do something more.

       The formation of coalitions: The marketing, entertainment, grocery, technology and food service industries, among many others, are forming powerful coalitions “to rebuild our collective spirit and raise more funds.”

       The desire to do something more specific and more tangible: Corporate leaders want to be able to report back to employees and customers specifically where their money went and how it helped those in need. Many companies that made significant donations to the relief efforts are now looking for things to support that will have a local and long-lasting impact.

“We have always been very aggressive in making sure our associates know what we do to respond to disasters,” says Suzanne Apple, vice president of community relations at The Home Depot, another company with a strong record of corporate philanthropy. “We want to make sure they know we care. They expect the company to respond in a certain way.”
Home Depot made a $1 million donation to the United Way’s September 11th Fund, and has organized a collection in its stores. Says Apple, “We had so many associates and customers who wanted to help and we have learned from other disasters, like Hurricane Andrew and the Oklahoma City bombing, that our customers are very generous at times like this.”
The company also sent 20 tractor-trailers, packed with supplies such as masks, shovels, gloves, and respirators into the city, and then turned the trucks themselves over to rescue workers.
“All of the things we did to help the relief effort we just did them, we didn’t talk about them,” says Apple. “But when it came to launching the collection drive, we needed to get publicity because we wanted people to come to the stores. We put out a media advisory to let people know what we were doing and how they could help, and we ran ads in Atlanta, Washington, and New York.”
In fact, the company adapted an already existing promotion. For several months, Home Depot has been urging customers to bring in their tax rebate checks and invest the money in home improvement. The new campaign suggests customers bring in those same checks, but donate them instead to assist the families of the victims.
“Our associates and our customers are anxious to help those affected by this tragedy,” says Home Depot president and chief executive Robert Nardelli, who joined the company from General Electric in December. “While traditional emergency supplies and staples such as blankets, canned goods or clothing are not currently in high demand, emergency aid authorities such as the United Way are requesting monetary donations to provide a variety of relief supplies and services.”
Some observers are already beginning to question whether the massive corporate response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 will have an impact on the volume of giving to other causes. Is this “new” philanthropic money, or is it merely being diverted from existing activity?
“Eventually, business leaders will come to a crossroads where they have to decide: have we given our fill, or will we find new ways to strengthen stakeholder relations through philanthropic giving and programs,” says Cone. “Following the incredible outpouring of corporate philanthropy around this tragedy, we hope that businesses have learned that the collective strength of bringing together their employees, financial resources and communities is important for the health of business moving forward.
“We hope companies will become even stronger by continuing to allocate financial and human resources for greater local impact, whether for the victims of this tragedy or for more local needs. Over time, there will again be more than just this one cause in America for companies and people to rally around. We trust that businesses will look to their local communities to address the continued need to work on issues like crime prevention, education, medical research, hunger, literacy, the environment, among many issues upon which we must not turn our backs.”
Home Depot’s Apple agrees.
“None of the issues that were the focus of our philanthropic efforts—education, housing, and community development—have changed because of this disaster,” says Apple. “But I think this presents an opportunity for us to look at those issues and ask questions about what kind of programs we should be supporting. The whole question of how we interact, how we treat each other—whether you call it race relations or diversity—I think that’s a much bigger part of the equation now. I think there’s a heightened appreciation of what it means to live in America, and I think we have to look at that when we look at how we give back to the whole community.”

View Style:

Load 3 More
comments powered by Disqus