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Human Hotspots and HOW We Connect

How we behave, lead, consume, build trust in our relationships, and relate to others has always mattered. But how we do these things matters now more than ever, often eclipsing what we do in this hyper-connected, hyper-transparent age; the good, the bad and the downright ugly are tweeted and blogged about and visible to millions within an instant. The behavior of individuals, corporations and governments – even when it’s misjudged but well intentioned, misconstrued or out of character – can precipitate a reputation crisis that’s beyond the ability of anyone to control. By the same token, when we get our HOWs right, it opens up opportunities to create sustainable value and to build lasting connections with our communities.       

This was the thrust of our CEO Dov Seidman’s remarks when he spoke yesterday at the South by Southwest Interactiveconference in Austin, Texas. As if to reinforce Dov’s points with perfect timing, at the same conference on the same day, an international marketing agency’s activities got it noticed for the wrong reasons. The New York Times reported that the agency touched off a wave of criticism and debate when it hired members of the local homeless population to walk around carrying mobile Wi-Fi devices, offering conference-goers Internet access in exchange for donations and the $20 they were paid for the day.

The agency in question quite possibly meant well – it used the term “charitable experiment” to describe outfitting 13 volunteers from a homeless shelter with the devices, business cards and T-shirts bearing their names, such as “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot” – but, as The Times reported, many interpreted the initiative as “exploitative and discomfiting.”

Mentioning the willingness of the participants, the fact they were paid and could keep donations, or even that other such “experiments” had successfully drawn attention to the plight of the homeless, hasn’t seemed to help the agency. In some quarters, as in Wired’s Epicenter blog, the criticism has been scathing.

I don’t intend to wade into that particular debate, much as I find the ethical aspects of the case troubling and the agency’s motivation “cloudy” at best. I am prepared to make three points, however.

First, any effort to align corporate marketing interests with the notion of creating social good should be handled with extreme care, especially where human lives and dignity are affected. As an aside, anyone interested in learning more about the effective and appropriate alignment of brands and social causes would do well to read Brand Spirit, written more than 10 years ago by Hamish Pringle and my former colleague, Marjorie Thompson. That book, with its vision and insights on business creating financial and social value at the same time, was personally inspiring; it awakened me to the idea that being a commercial litigation attorney was not necessarily the best way for me to help companies be more proactive about their legal and ethical obligations. It set me off on a new path, with the recognition that achieving business goals did not have to be a zero-sum game.    

Secondly, I’ve always subscribed to Kant’s categorical imperative that humans should be treated as ends in and of themselves – never as means to an end.

Thirdly, and connected to the previous point, the value that is created by an individual or an organization is inevitably more significant, satisfying and sustainable when it has a relational rather than a transactional basis; in other words, when what is contemplated is inspired by a vision and a purpose based on mutuality of interests.      

By way of contrast to the marketing agency’s “charitable experiment” (both in terms of scale and approach), I’d offer up another corporate initiative focused on the issue of homelessness: Nike’s sponsorship of the Homeless World Cup. According to Nike’s Corporate Responsibility Report, since 2003, the Homeless World Cup (HWC) has mobilized and supported locally-run football (soccer) programs for homeless community members in more than 60 countries globally.  

Nike's partnership with the HWC runs from direct financial support, consulting with HWC on brand management and marketing, creating and donating HWC product and merchandise, and employees volunteering at events.

HWC training programs include technical training as well as an extensive engagement with each player to help them deal with drug or alcohol dependency, moving into jobs, finding homes, getting educated and/or repairing relationships. Nike further reports that in 2007, more than 25,000 players participated in the training programs globally with 382 going on to represent their country in the finals.

Perhaps the true significance of this program is seen from what players said when each was interviewed by HWC to establish the impact of participation in the program on their lives. Here’s a selection of statistics that I’d defy you not to find inspiring:

  • 93 percent reported a new motivation for life
  • 83 percent reported improved social relations
  • 38 percent reported improved housing situations
  • 32 percent reported re-entering the education system
  • 29 percent reported they had found employment
  • 71 percent say they now play regularly

Many people are aware that Nike has itself been no stranger to controversy, facing enormous criticism in the 1990s for labor practices in suppliers’ factories, much like Apple is currently facing. To its credit, Nike has taken the human rights issue extremely seriously and is notable for its transparency in relation to slow progress in some areas. It has also been widely commended for its successes, such as environmental responsibility.  

Ironically, Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan, which Advertising Agechose as one of the top five ad slogans of the twentieth century, now seems rather anachronistic. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we’re in a new era of behavior, and “How You Do It” has become a much apposite phrase. 

UPDATE ON THE "HOMELESS HOTSPOTS" CONTROVERSY:

A few hours after posting the above, out of curiosity I visited the website of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), the agency involved in the SXSW "Homeless Hotspots" controversy; I was interested to see what, if any, reference the site made to it. There, prominent on the home page, was a previously tweeted link to an article in The Atlantic Wire, which the tweet described as "great report on the progression of #HomelessHotspots through the media." The article compared that progression to five stages of grief, ending with acceptance.

Initially, I'd been prepared to give some credit for what seemed like surprising transparency. When I read the article, though, two possibilities came to mind: either the tweeter was stoically admiring the quality of The Atlantic's journalism in the face of an rather unflattering portrait of his or her firm's project, or there was some spin going on here -- hey, this really wasn't such a big deal, so let's just forget it, shall we? Either way, I suspect the outcome could have been very different for all participants if HOW had been more present in the mix.   

Topics: Sustainability