The Best PR Agency Public Service Programs
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The Best PR Agency Public Service Programs

Particularly in the post-9/11 world, employees are looking for more meaning from their work, and firms are finding that allowing employees to use their professional skills to give something back to the community sends a powerful signal.

Paul Holmes

Public relations firms have a long-standing tradition of community involvement. Almost every firm offers its services on a pro bono basis to non-profit clients, many others make cash donations to deserving recipients, and increasingly firms are encouraging and assisting their employees in personal volunteerism activities.

But more and more, these efforts have a strategic purpose. Particularly in the post-9/11 world, employees are looking for more meaning from their work, and firms are finding that allowing employees to use their professional skills to give something back to the community sends a powerful signal about the positive role public relations can play in the world.

Our annual Best Agencies to Work For survey finds a clear link between those firms that make a commitment to community service and those that score high marks for employee communications.

Listed below are some of the most extensive and innovative community service programs offered by PR agencies large and small.

1. Burson-Marsteller

In a recent social responsibility report prepared for parent company WPP Group, Burson-Marsteller management estimated the firm had done pro bono work worth an estimated $1.5 million in recent years, with beneficiaries including UNICEF, the Red Cross, United Way, the Salvation Army, and the New York Times 9-11 Neediest Fund.

The firm was one of the first to respond proactively to the tragedy of September 11, committing both staff and financial resources (at a time when the agency business was struggling mightily) to assist the victims, the community, and clients impacted by the terror attacks. The firm’s employees—supported by management—organized a food drive, volunteered with the Red Cross, delivered supplies to New York Hospital, and set aside office space for companies displaced by the attacks.

The firm also has a long-standing relationship with Special Olympics International, committing to a five-year pro bono program in China to increase participation in the Special Olympics and to educate the public on the plight of the mentally retarded. And in September 2002, it became a Gold Sponsor of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation Walk-a-Thon, with employees walking in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego and CEO Chris Komisarjevsky serving as regional chairman for the New York event.

2. Edward Howard & Co.

A little over a year ago, the son of an employee in the building where Edward Howard has its headquarters was killed by stray bullets from neighborhood gang activity. The firm quickly established and gained public support for the Warren Culbreath Memorial Fund, which raised $10,000 and last year donated a fully equipped math and reading lab, a lasting tribute to the seventh grade honor student, at a middle school in the Cleveland public school system.

That initiative came on top of an ongoing commitment to community service that saw the firm donate an estimated 2,700 hours of staff time to community initiatives in 2002, with beneficiaries including the Federation for Community Planning, the Greater Cleveland Committee on Hunger, Providence House, the American Heart Association, Project LEARN and the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

The firm also provides pro bono public relations services for several organizations, including the Cleveland chapter of City Year, a national service organization that brings together diverse young leaders for a full year of civic activities, and for First Night Columbus, the New Year’s Eve celebration in the Ohio state capital. And last year the firm provided pro bono public and employee communications counsel to assist with contact negotiations between a major Dayton hospital system and the area’s largest HMO, stabilizing a contentious process that has impacted both businesses and the community.

3. Carter Ryley Thomas

One of CRT’s goals is to donate 10 percent of our after-tax profits to charitable organizations in the community in service and cash contributions.

To that end, the firm holds an annual Community Service Day, a community outreach program with 100 percent participation from all employees. For one full working day each December, CRT closes its offices and employees spend the day volunteering at various organizations in each community. Activities range from entertaining children waiting for chemotherapy treatment in the hospital to decorating Christmas cards and caroling in nursing homes.

In addition to Community Service Day, CRT also adopts families for Christmas. Each member of the adopted family creates a “Christmas Wish List,” and CRT employees work together to make sure the children and parents get everything on the list. The firm also donates cash and time to a wide range of non-profit organizations including the American Cancer Society, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Coalition for a Greater Richmond, the National Conference for Community and Justice, Noah’s Children, and the Richmond Urban Partnership for Educational Success.

4. Patrice Tanaka & Company

Patrice Tanaka & Company not only gives back to the community itself, it also has taken an active role in encouraging the rest of the PR industry to get involved in worthwhile causes.

Every year on Valentine’s Day, the firm closes its office and gives employees the day off to go and commit “acts of love and kindness.” Employees volunteer at soup kitchens, deliver meals to homebound people with HIV/AIDS, clean up parks, and provide PR assistance to churches and non-profit organizations.

In 1997, the firm took the concept to the New York chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, which helped turn it into a citywide program. Today, each February, more than 60 New York City public relations firms (and some corporate communications departments) mark Valentine’s Day by granting colleagues time off for community activities.

5. Fleishman-Hillard

Challenger Baseball is the brainchild of an employee at Fleishman-Hillard’s St. Louis headquarters, and provides disabled children from around the city the opportunity to play in a real baseball league. Several FH employees assist at games and have done extensive PR work to get the program important recognition and community support.

But the agency has an active philanthropy program that involves all its offices. Many employees sign up to serve lunch at local homeless shelters, for example, and the firm has committed to staff several slots on a monthly basis in support of this program. Other offices organize teams of employees that adopted more than 20 needy families during the holiday season. The employees shop for gifts using FH money and donate items on their own. Offices also sponsor mitten trees where we collect hats, gloves, and scarves for needy children.

The firm also provides volunteers to help staff media tents/desks at major community events, including the annual March of Dimes Walk for Life and Habitat for Humanity and during 2002, FH employees across the network participated in their local “Race for Cure” to benefit breast cancer research and the Susan B. Komen Foundation. The firm also supported the Komen Foundation by participating in Lee Nation Denim Day, a program through which employees could make a donation to the Foundation in exchange for an opportunity to wear jeans to work during the week.

6. The MWW Group

Two years ago, MWW introduced a series of workplace programs including the professional development initiative TeamWorks and an outreach program called CommunityWorks designed to encourage employee volunteerism. The program provides all employees with 10 hours of paid time off for community service work, and projects to date have ranged from volunteering at a nearby school to working in a soup kitchen to becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister to participating on the boards of local philanthropic or educational organizations.

The firm also identifies areas where teams of employees can make a difference. Staff have spent two days working together on Habitat for Humanity housing; preparing and distributing Thanksgiving meals through the Center for Food Action; fulfilling the holiday wishes of hundreds of children through the Letters to Santa campaign; and working on breast cancer awareness events and animal welfare issues.

7. Schenkein

Denver-based Schenkein lists “community involvement” as one of six core values, and its commitment is reflected in formal agency-sponsored activities and a culture that encourages employees to participate on an individual basis. There’s even a community involvement committee—actually, there’s a committee focused on each of the six values—that holds management’s feet to the fire.

Senior agency executives serve on a variety of nonprofit boards including Colorado Public Radio, the American Red Cross, and the Women’s Foundation, and the management team serves as a clearinghouse to suggest similar opportunities for employees at all levels. The firm also adopts a local family each Christmas, providing food and gifts based on employee contributions that are matched by the company, and each year votes on an community project to tackle as a team: projects have ranged from painting a home for an elderly woman to cleaning up a local playground. Another innovative program is the sale of “Schenkein Shares,” stickers that allow employees to purchase the right to wear jeans at $5 a pop, with the proceeds (more than $1,000 last year) going to local nonprofits.

8. Capital Strategies

Capital Strategies, with 50-plus employees in Raleigh, NC, believes in doing well and doing good and it believes in attracting, recruiting and retaining people with a similar passion.  But until recently, the firm had no formal incentives, policies or structures to encourage and support community involvement. In early 2002, it began looking for models to revamp our approach, creating The Boomerang Society, a comprehensive, formalized community involvement program that encourages volunteerism. “We believe community work is meaningful, rewarding and fun for the firm and our employees,” says agency president Monty Hagler. “The name reflects that belief. Boomerangs return to those who place them in motion; the good works that we do return as well.”

So the firm is forming an account services team that focuses on a single pro bono client with multiple needs. The team will provide PR, public affairs and marketing services, led by junior staffers who rarely get opportunities to plan strategy, map out tactics or lead major projects. The firm is also allocating annual line item of $10,000 for cash contributions to community causes. Anyone can seek funding for a charitable cause, but must submit a proposal and live with the Society’s decision. And a $5,000 matching gift program allocates a $250 donation for every 50 hours volunteered by an employee to a non-profit organization.

The Society has already selected Habitat for Humanity as its Volunteer Day project for 2003, and is planning the first “CapStrat Challenge,” which will allow employees to volunteer in local schools to upgrade a classroom..

9. Golin/Harris International

Golin/Harris has two outstanding initiatives designed to encourage community involvement. The first is Project G.I.V.E., which was created to support employees already involved in individual volunteer work and to encourage more employees to explore the learning opportunities that volunteerism affords. Through Project G.I.V.E., the firm provides information about volunteering, consultation to help employees find appropriate opportunities, and flextime to enable them to balance volunteering with other personal and professional commitments.

The second initiative, Leadership in Action, is a 16-week employee development workshop aimed at emerging leaders that couples leadership training with a service-oriented “leadership laboratory” experience. Participants receive classroom instruction on essential leadership skills, and then get to practice those skills in a non-profit community organization environment. Participants in the Chicago class spent more than 1,500 hours last year working with teams at local non-profits, delivering an estimated $100,000 in reduced costs and increased revenues for the participating organizations.

Finally, the firm recognizes employees for their community service work with the annual Golin/Harris Giving Back Award.

10. The Standing Partnership

St. Louis-based PR firm The Standing Partnership celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2001, and marked the occasion by implementing an agency-wide volunteer program called “Ten Special Projects.”  The firm made an estimated donation of $50,000 in staff time to projects that included providing planning and media relations support for KMOX radio host Charles Brennan and his Rediscover St. Louis campaign; the donation of reading materials to LIFT-Missouri, a local literacy program; coordination of a business clothing collection for area welfare-to-work assistance agencies; and work in support of Habitat for Humanity’s “15 Houses in 15 Days” marathon.

The firm is unusual in that employees at the account executive level and above have community involvement written into their job descriptions, with the result that TSP staff members volunteer in organizations ranging from Metropolis (a city revitalization initiative) to the St. Louis Marathon to the Lighthouse Community Center to the Joe Torre Foundation.

11. Edelman

Like many large agencies, Edelman gives its local offices the freedom to develop their own pro bono and community outreach programs, and the result is a rich and diverse array of initiatives. In 2002, for example, several offices worked with Wash America, which enlisted teenagers around America to raise money for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks by washing cars; the New York office assisted New York Cares, restoring a memorial to firefighters and refurbishing an inner-city school in Brooklyn; the Chicago office worked with the city to promote its Principal for a Day program, enlisting celebrities such as Bonnie Hunt and Chi McBride in the effort; while the Atlanta office provided 50 hours of pro bono counsel in honor of the firm’s 50th anniversary.

At the corporate level, Edelman has been a partner of America’s Promise—which assists inner city youth—since it was founded in 1997, and several offices place special emphasis on internships for inner-city youngsters.

12. LaBreche Murray

Minneapolis-based LaBreche Murray was one of a half dozen companies to receive Quality of Life awards from the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce in 2002. The awards are presented to celebrate the role businesses play in enhancing quality of life in the local community (previous honorees have included Honeywell, IBM and the Minnesota Twins) and LaBreche Murray was singled out for formalizing its philanthropic program, a process that involved developing a clear vision for making a difference in the community, guiding funding and volunteerism toward programs that help people with the basics: from earning an income and getting off the streets to assisting abused children.

LaBreche Murray offers pro bono assistance to non-profit organizations, with beneficiaries including Sharing & Caring Hands, which serves the needs of the inner city poor; East Side Neighborhood Services; AccessAbility; and the Greater Twin Cities United Way. The firm is one of only a handful that has a “philanthropy” section to its website, including information on how to apply for pro bono assistance.

13. APCO Worldwide

APCO is another multi-office agency that supports local non-profits in all its markets through a wide range of initiatives. In 2002, for example, the company and its employees collected toiletries for Charlie’s Place, an organization that provides assistance to the homeless in Washington, D.C.; participated in the Race for the Cure to benefit the Susan G. Komen Foundation; worked on a Valentine’s Day food drive for a shelter in Seattle; and raised funds to buy arts supplies for the WSVA, an organization that provides educational services to children with special needs.

In addition, the firm donated money and goods to a variety of organizations including UNICEF, Gift for the Homeless, and the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the largest AIDS-related social service agency in the metro D.C. area.

14. Fast Horse

Eighteen-month-old Minneapolis PR firm Fast Horse focuses its philanthropic activity on the arts because “we believe the arts are a powerful and important force in furthering communication and the understanding of diverse perspectives,” says CEO Jörg Pierach. So the firm established a program it calls New Audiences, which grants artists and musicians up to $25,000 in pro bon professional services to help them communicate their work to a broader audience. The firm has worked with local photographer and filmmaker Mark Wojahn and the Walker Arts Center.

The firm has also made monetary and in-kind donations to organizations assisting Twin Cities youth: donating arts supplies for the free arts program at St. Joseph’s Home for Children; and providing pro bono event planning and publicity assistance to the Gillette Children’s Hospital; and making cash donations to ACES, an after school learning program for at-risk kids, and the Minnesota Literacy Council.

15. Manning Selvage & Lee

Two years ago, MS&L introduced the first annual Agnew Carter McCarthy Community Grant, designed to recognize the 23-year community service legacy of Jack Agnew, Lew Carter and Terry McCarthy, whose firm was acquired by MS&L in 1999. The first grant recipient was the Boys and Girls Club of Boston, which currently serves over 7,000 members in four Boston neighborhoods.  After participating in a grant review process, the Boys and Girls Club of Boston was awarded $100,000 of in-kind professional public relations services over a two-year period to be conducted by MS&L/Boston.

That grant supplements the the George Goodwin Community Grant, developed in 1998 to continue the legacy of MS&L Atlanta founder George Goodwin, which provides $100,000 of in-kind public relations and marketing communications services during a two-year period to an Atlanta-based non-profit.  In 2001, the recipient was the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta (CCCS).

In addition, MS&L made a $5,000 donation to The LaGrant Foundation, which provides scholarships to African-American, Hispanic, Asian Pacific and Native American students majoring in public relations, advertising or marketing.  And a national employee giving campaign was held on behalf of EarthShare, an organization that represents environmental charities. Many individual offices adopt local charities such as children’s hospitals or participate in United Way campaigns to support efforts in their community.

16. Dix & Eaton

For more than seven years, Cleveland’s Dix & Eaton has ranked as the leading giver among small businesses that donate to the United Way of Greater Cleveland, but the firm’s commitment to community service does not end with cash donations.

The value of the firm’s pro bono work exceeded $350,000 in 2002, supplementing annual cash contributions of around $100,000. That doesn’t count the estimated 6,000 hours a year the firm’s 70 staffers donate to community service.

17. Text 100

Last year was the second year in a row that technology public relations specialist Text 100 sponsored an Holiday Charitable Giving Campaign, with a card that invited clients and friends of the agency to visit a special website and select a charity from a list of global humanitarian causes. The site updated in real time, so visitors could see what proportion of donations were going to each charity.

In addition, the firm’s various offices got involved in local initiatives. In Seattle, employees walked and ran to raise funds for the Northwest AIDS Foundation; in San Francisco they donated clothes to the Raphael House, a shelter for homeless families; in Boston, they donated old cell phones to an organization that programs them to call 911 and distributes them to the homeless; and in Rochester, they participated in the Chase Corporate Challenge, raising funds for a center that aids physically and mentally challenged individuals.

18. Cone

Two years ago, after its acquisition by Omnicom, Cone donated a portion of the sale price—plus many hours of staff time—to help build Habitat for Humanity homes in the Boston area. Now the firm is taking its own advice—it specializes in cause branding programs—and creating its own initiative, called Hours for Good, which will allow Cone employees to volunteer with two or three pre-selected non-profit organizations. The firm will also sponsor opportunities for employees to consult with organizations on issues related to marketing and PR. And the firm continues to provide employees with 48 hours of paid time off for volunteer work.

19. Hill & Knowlton

In June 2002, Hill & Knowlton forged a unique partnership with Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, an organization that promotes “social entrepreneurship.” Ashoka—named for a third century B.C. emperor of India known for his social works—scours the world for social entrepreneurs, individuals whose ideas can drive sustainable social change in their communities. Those entrepreneurs become Ashoka Fellows, and H&K offices around the world provide pro bono public relations support, including media training, to both the organization and its fellows.

20. Waggener Edstrom

The mission of Waggener Edstrom’s community outreach program is “to offer simple, diverse, easy and meaningful activities that enrich the lives of Waggener Edstrom employees and non-profit organizations serving the communities and world we live in.”  The agency’s efforts in the community are focused on charities that are of importance to employees. WaggEd conduct an annual survey to determine the areas of greatest interest to employees and every employee has the option to use eight hours of paid time off, per year, to volunteer for a non-profit organization of their choice. Dollars are set aside and are used to support employee charities on a first come, first serve basis, with athletic events, bereavement donations, and holiday outreach among the beneficiaries.

21. Dome Communications

Part of the culture at Dome is a commitment to the community, and that commitment manifests itself in the support of a set of pro-bono clients with account staff, agency resources and the support of individuals’ own efforts with other organizations. The firm also offers agency resources to staff in their non-profit endeavors and has instituted the “Dome Cares” program, which allows employees a full week off to volunteer for a cause of their choice.  Several employees have taken advantage of the program, participating in AIDS bike rides, church mission trips and three-day breast cancer awareness walks.

22. Blanc & Otus

Technology specialist Blanc & Otus supports Community Awareness and Treatment Services (CATS), an organization that provides day and overnight programs for the homeless, as well as providing drug and job counseling.  In addition to coordinating clothing drives for those utilizing the group’s services, employees donate their time at the shelters during the workweek. In addition to CATS, B&O supports Friends of the Children, a non-profit organization that provides paid mentors or friends to school age children, including free office space in San Francisco. And during the holiday season, employees provided holiday to all of the families in the program. The firm also provides E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs) with pro bono PR planning, strategic counsel, speaker placement, and media outreach assistance.

23. Davis & Company

Davis & Company has been involved in pro-bono work for several charitable organizations (donating time or expertise) and encourages employees to propose ideas for volunteering or participating in community affairs. At Thanksgiving, for example, the firm held a food drive, with employees bringing food products to The Record center in Rockaway, NJ for distribution to needy families. The firm also donated a gift basket that was raffled off with proceeds going to Project Literacy, and used office furniture to the battered Women's Center, Hackensack. The firm also has a Matching Gift Program through which Davis & Company matches employee donations—dollar for dollar—up to a maximum of $100 per year per employee.

24. Peppercom

In 2002, Peppercom was one of the most energetic participants in a project called One Day’s Pay, which called on companies across America to donate time on September 11 to helping non-profits or engaging in community activity. The firm chose to support the New York City fire department and collected items that firefighters could use around the firehouse, including kitchen utensils, books, and Blockbuster and Barnes & Noble gift certificates, ultimately delivering 12 big baskets of items to three local firehouses.

25. Communications 21

Communications 21 donates approximately 480 hours annually (or close to $50,000) of its time to help three non-profit organizations: CityCares, Hands On Atlanta, and Literacy Volunteers of America. The firm also challenges its clients each year to participate in Hands On Atlanta Day each year—picking a project such as painting a women’s shelter or landscaping an elementary school.  In 2002, the firm also completed a fundraising drive for United Way and raised over $2,500 in one week.

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