The Ethics of Self Promotion Through Charitable Causes (A Case Study)

Social Media has been an excellent vehicle for businesses to promote their brands and products for years, and with a theoretical audience of over one billion users it’s a trend that’s set to continue for the foreseeable future. From that, it’s of little wonder that slowly people are starting to realise the potential for charities to make their mark on this global audience for the betterment of their respective causes. But what happens though when lines get crossed and businesses and charities start working together, and it becomes difficult to see exactly who’s getting the better deal?

Let me start out by saying that I am in no way against charities, or generally disagree with what charities are trying to do simply on matter of principle. I’m a big fan of some charities and I believe supporting a cause comes down to an individual’s ability to connect or relate to an issue, rather than being fundamentally for or against charities in general. Social Media has been instrumental in raising awareness for good causes who would otherwise not have the resources or the voice to speak out and be heard by so many people at once. In extreme circumstances Social Media has even proven invaluable to relief efforts in the face of natural disasters and has paved the way for charitable donations on a scale we’ve never seen before.

It’s nothing new for companies or businesses to be associated with specific charities. Some of the best results charities have seen have been due to working together with big brand names and there’s an argument for a charity that “any publicity is good publicity”. How far though is that argument being pushed by businesses today, and where does the line get drawn between that which is in the best interests of the charity, and the best wishes of the firm ‘promoting’ the charity?

I came across an interesting Tweet yesterday (or, more specifically, a ‘Re-Tweet’) from a celebrity whom I shall not name, which read:

DPGplc DPG plc [rt] by [name_removed]
@[name_removed] We’ll donate £5 to SANDS (Still & Neo-Natal Death Society) for every celebrity RT of this post. #CIPD11

My first impression of that Tweet was that it seemed a little lacklustre and insincere. I’m naturally a cynic and am sceptical about… well, most things really, so that reaction wasn’t exactly uncommon. But then I took a closer look and started looking at it objectively. The concept was simple enough; the company “DPG plc” (Development Processes Group) were sending Tweets to every celebrity/high profile user they could find, claiming that every time one of them Retweeted their post, they would donate £5 to charity. For the purposes of this article I shall ignore the fact that this was blatantly spam and say that on the surface, this seemed simple enough. A business is for all intents and purposes pledging money to a charitable cause.

Three things bugged me about the post right away. To begin with, it was making no effort to explain anything about the charity and, more importantly, it gave no obvious way of obtaining more information. If you want to try and raise awareness of an issue, you want people to care so ‘context’ is pretty important (despite the 140 character limit being fairly inhibitive at times). Furthermore, once you’ve got somebody’s interest/attention you want them to be able to easily access further information. Twitter has a built-in feature that automatically shortens links, so the (approx) 20 remaining characters from these posts were more than enough to contain a link to SANDS, the charity in question. Further investigating also showed that there was also no mention of the charity anywhere on DPG’s Twitter account or their own website (which doesn’t get a link).

The second thing that annoyed me was the fact that the post specified that DPG were only willing to make any contributions upon celebrity endorsement. I can see the logic behind this argument from a marketing perspective – celebrities are deemed more influential than Joe Twitter and thus upon a Tweet by a celebrity the message is theoretically reaching a larger audience. However, given that the post specifically stated that they are only going make a donation upon a ‘celebrity retweet’ implies a desire to specifically be associated with fame, rather than being concerned with raising awareness. If they wanted to do the best job they could, they’d want everyone to be Retweeting and learning about the charity and volunteering help. One way of interpreting this would be to conclude that DPG are more interested in making people aware of their gesture than they are in helping SANDS.

Onto my final and biggest gripe: the ‘hashtag’. That bit at the end of the Tweet which reads “#CIPD11”. For those who aren’t particularly familiar with Twitter, a hashtag is a way of linking Tweets to create discussions between users who aren’t necessarily following each other. A ‘topic indicator’, if you like. You can click on a hashtag and see every recent post which has it included, and wanting to know what #CIPD11 is and how it related to the charity; I clicked it. Turns out that the hashtag is actually nothing to do with SANDS or any other charity, it’s The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Annual Conference and Exhibition. In other words, a big networking event to discuss ‘Human Resources’. And no, before you ask, there is no connection between CIPD11 and the Still & Neo-Natal Death Society. None on the website dedicated to this conference, nor on any other websites discussing this conference. Nor does CIPD11 appear anywhere on the website of the charity, either.

I also want to make it clear that this is not a DPG scam, as one of the trustees from the charity was keen to defend these Tweets when I questioned DPG’s methods:

TravisCerys Peter Brady
@kenhalfpenny @dpgplc I am a trustee of said charity it is a marketing concept that @DPGplc are prepared to pay £5K to us for these RTs

Peter Brady, founder of the Jude Brady Foundation raises a good point when it comes to discussing the ‘ethics’ dilemma as mentioned in the title of this article, and we’ll get to that in a bit. I’d like to note at this stage that nobody that I spoke to from SANDS or DPG knew anything about the arrangement, but then it’s not entirely uncommon for financial matters not to be common knowledge amongst all members of a company so they couldn’t really be scrutinized for that. But, it was a little disappointing that nobody was available to talk to, whether it be SANDS, DPG or even Peter Brady himself to clarify the details of the agreement.

The details strike me as particularly peculiar as well. For instance, how are they monitoring exactly how many celebrities are retweeting their posts? What are they using as the basis to define a ‘celebrity’? People in the industry will know of ‘Listening Tools’ which are used to monitor various aspects of user conduct on Social Media, and to turn around and say “We’re using listening tools” and hope that there’ll be enough people without the knowledge of how this works to save having to justify it any further. Because, to be clear, they wouldn’t have to monitor how many times a single post is retweeted, as their is no “one Tweet” to count. DPG have issued numerous different Tweets, each targeting a different ‘celebrity’. In order for their “£5 per celebrity retweet” to come true, they’d actually have to differentiate between a retweet from a celebrity, and a retweet from somebody who doesn’t enjoy quite the same social status (by whatever standards DPG are using as definition). Could it be that  £5,000 (total) is a figure that DPG has already agreed to donate and the celebrity retweets are all about publicity? Is the £5,000 Peter mentioned in his response just an “upper limit”, and if only 10 celebrities retweet their comments, does this mean the charity will only get £50? Who knows. The only 3 people who have heard of this deal apparently are all unavailable, the entire day. “Okay”. Like I said, I’m a sceptic.

TravisCerys Peter Brady
@kenhalfpenny @dpgplc and just for the record think of how much the profile of our charity is being raised too it's nothing but good for us

So regardless of how genuine DPG might be in their offer, or how they’re going about conducting themselves, Peter Brady does have a point. If, through whatever means, a charity is receiving just a little bit more attention on the back of somebody else’s marketing, is that a bad thing? Is there a a definitive rule which states that companies should be allowed to conduct themselves in whatever manner they choose so long as a) they’re not hurting anyone and b) charities benefit from it in the long run. But then, how does one measure exactly just how much benefit to a charity there can be by simply name dropping them as part of what is, in all reality, a marketing campaign designed to raise awareness of DPG plc and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s conference event.

How tolerant are you willing to be of marketing practices which are clearly using not just the concept of charity, but specific charities, in order to promote their own reputation? Do ridiculously misleading marketing campaigns actually help a company’s reputation, and is DPG likely to gain anything from this? Where should the line be drawn – if at all – between a company and charity forming a mutually beneficial partnership, if the company is gaining more from the relationship. If a company is gaining proportionately more from the relationship – is it even still charity? Ultimately it’s not for me to say one way or another.

When Peter Brady isn’t raising money for a worthy cause (and yes, SANDS is a worthy cause) he works for a company called Mutual Media whose industry is set in marketing, design and print. One of Mutual Media’s clients? DPG plc. I’m not suggesting foul play, far from it. I think what’s happened here is Peter Brady has approached one or more of his clients to ask them if they’d be willing to support a charity for which he is a trustee. I think DPG plc has seized an opportunity to promote themselves, their brand and their trade on the back of this. A lot of companies have found ways to make ‘x’ amount of their financial margin tax-deductible by writing off figures as charitable donations. I think DPG plc HAS the money spare to give to charity, but rather than just do what’s right and GIVE THEM THE MONEY OUTRIGHT, they’ve chosen to make a scene and say “look at us, look at what we’re doing, aren’t we simply the coolest?”. I don’t think any credit should be given to a gesture that’s clearly not been made with the charity’s best interests in mind, and advertising an HR conference under the pretence of charity awareness is utterly morally bankrupt.

The most concerning thing though, I think, of all of this is; if companies are allowed to abuse charities for the sake of self promotion, will this lead to people becoming indifferent to genuine charitable efforts and campaigns? If people are left with the impression that Social Media is being abused by businesses looking to exploit charities, will that in fact lower the number of people willing to contribute to a good cause?

You tell me.

Respond here, or reply to us on Twitter (I’m not pretending to be doing this for charity) at @reputationmgmnt to continue the discussion.

Thanks for reading.

  • Great article mate, and some good points. To me, the question – “if companies are allowed to abuse charities for the sake of self promotion, will this lead to people becoming indifferent to genuine charitable efforts and campaigns?” is at the heart of the issue here, and is something these companies should be more aware of.