Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Corporate "Responsibility", or Raging Within the Machine

I have accepted Starbucks as inevitability in my life. Once a symbol of wasteful consumption in my mind, the not so secret dystopian lair of “The Man” and classist brand snobs, I now understand that every single group meeting being held “At Starbucks” just because it’s cool to be seen talking about ideas in public does not necessitate a lecture from me. I have come to accept that their hot chocolate is good, and we probably won’t get another place that sell mini whoopee pies in Halifax any time soon. Starbucks, you’re kind of okay. I’m not proud of you, but I don’t mind you. I guess. Okay, Starbucks, truce.

I am in Public Relations. The reaction I get to this is always mixed, but eventually people understand. I can take your big ideas and make then 140 characters. I can organize events that people not only attend, but always look forwards to. I can explain why the NDP aren’t communists to your grandmother, or why feminism isn’t scary hairy arm pits to that guy you hate in your classes, or why what most politicians say is utter crap to most politicians in an agreeable & polite way. It doesn’t always work, but it generally leaves people kind of speechless. This is just what I do. This is what I’m good at.

But Walmart scares me. I don’t think having an economy based on oil is very good for Canada. The way most corporations conduct business terrifies me, and I have a hard time arguing that most of the consumption we do is ethical, even if everything has a random, unearned “eco friendly” sticker on it. It’s been a few months since I’ve purchased anything new, aside from basics like food and Mother’s Day Gift.
But yea, I’m in public relations. So you want to call me a spin doctor. So you want to think I’m going to brainwash you some day.

And don’t get me wrong, I have met people who are literally trying to brainwash you, but they’re usually part of the brainwashing themselves. There was the terrifying blond guy who wanted to be the next Glen Beck. There was the offspring who wanted to take over the family business and justify dumping in streams. And then there was also the more mundane but equally creepy individuals who felt as though nothing had changed since what we see on Mad Men and you can stay golden if you don’t get caught. My degree and future profession certainly attracts some people with questionable goals. Kind of like law. And education. And health care. And journalism. And pretty much every other job on the planet.

This is why seeing a petition thanking Starbucks forstanding up to the National Organization for Marriage  was more than a little disturbing for me. To be clear, what Starbucks did was right and they did not have to do it. But since when do we “reward” corporations simply for not doing the wrong thing? Supporting LGBT right is so ingrained in the urban image which is the one of the most important parts of Starbucks’ brand strategy. So what was the right thing is also the right thing for business, which is of course commendable, but Starbucks made this decision because half the people in NOM hate Jason Mraz and probably still use the term “city slickers.” If Starbucks did anything but this, you should have been able to hear a pin drop in their restaurant. Boycott would not be strong enough a word. Do we mindlessly applaud what looks to be corporations caring because we know we don’t have the willpower to stop purchasing the product? Or has the bar really been set so low that thanking a corporation on the Internet feels like activism? A few homophobes may skip around the place that gentrified and commercialized your neighbourhood now, but doesn’t that just make it better for everyone in it? Buy a latte!   

But, once again, I’m in public relations. So shouldn’t I want you to sign eighteen petitions, share it on Facebook, and then distract yourself from anything that might be happening on the streets of Montreal and filling your moral quota for the day by putting extra topping on your coffeecaramelchocolate atte-occa-chino? “Corporate responsibility” is second only to “social media” in terms of buzz words in classes right now. I spent three years at The Gap folding t-shirts. Can no machine be a good machine?

While I do think the word ethical has been diluted to the point of meaningless (there will never be anything ethical about spending money on crap you don’t need, no matter how granola the packaging looks) when Mark's Work Wearhouse announced that they would not continue to stock CAT products after their complete betrayal of the Canadian public, I added woolly socks to my mental gift list, and shared the article with my Facebook friends. The brand meant nothing to me, but their action, which tarnishes a relationship with a popular brand, lost them money, and could freak out future clients did speak. A press release went out. Actually, I'm sure many did. But they did not ask me to retweet a message as a condition to donating a nickel to a dubious house owned charity, nor was there a petition glorifying them. They made a smart but scary decision. They did what someone SHOULD do in that situation. And while I did not rush out and get a plaid shirt, I did the next month when I needed to give one. That's responsibility to me. 

Corporate responsibility means doing the right thing and should be expected, not exceptional. We need to empowers ourselves to the point that we feel comfortable telling businesses that not doing wrong is not a right. They exist to serve us. Not the other way around. I don't know how those waters became so muddy.

As someone in public relations, I should want everyone to thank Starbucks, but as someone who will probably never do PR for Starbucks I want us to think harder. And I think that tells you who we should be listening to.


Isabel said...

Ahhhh, so good. You are the biggest inspiration to me. Pretty sure we NEED people like you in PR.

Pomeline said...

Great article, you sure you want to be in PR and not head into politics? We need more people like you! :)

Amber said...

its important to be able to call people out on their bs, even large corporations.

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Tara said...

You've hit the nail on this head with this one...damn.

Melissa Blake said...

Thanks for your insightful thoughts

Elle Sees said...

Unrelated, but kinda related, the Starbucks in Atlanta have started selling alcohol. This troubles me...what happened to selling coffee?