Monday, August 9, 2010

Politically correct political donations

As we PR veterans know all too well, one act can undo years of good work.

Following negative media coverage and store protests, Target's CEO last week apologized to employees for a $150,000 donation to a Minnesota organization that supported a Republican candidate for governor, who happened to endorse a constitutional amendment supporting "traditional marriage."

It is pretty clear Target's intentions were narrowly focused on supporting an organization that was pro-business. The challenge for any major, highly visible corporation is, therefore, to conduct the due diligence and secure the agreements that ensure the organization being supported with such a large check doesn't venture too far off the farm.

A company can't expect the organization receiving the funds to automatically recognize all parameters of how the donation is to be used, or evaluate all the repercussions of the organization's actions. An organization may think it is acting responsibility, but it's up to the company to explain every last detail and practically direct the organization's political movements.

The Wall Street Journal on Friday covered the dangers of new campaign finance rules for companies. Target seems to be the first test case, although it would seem a company the size of Target would have known better.

Although Target clearly states (on its web site, primarily) the intentions of political contributions, the rules of the game work differently. It's impossible for a company to donate to a cause or candidate and add "we only support 'this' side/part of the candidate." A candidate's "total" platform is taken into consideration for any donation.

Thus, Target soon was placed on the mantel of supporting an anti-gay candidate for the donation to a pro-business organization, which then happened to endorse a GOP candidate who....

The single donation has nearly wiped out Target's previous stellar reputation as being an LGBT-supportive employer.
So, what does this all mean?
Well, I'm sure over the next few days, you'll hear all sorts of suggestions for PR, such as:
  • Target should ask for its donation back.
  • Target should reinforce its ties to gay organizations.
  • Target should support a pro-gay candidate.
  • Target should embark on a subtle gay outreach advertising effort (following the first two efforts).
Fact is, Target shouldn't change too much. The much-publicized boycott won't work, they never do. So, there is no need to over-react. The apology letter should work, for now. And, I'll bet my next paycheck, Target is working this behind the scenes with all its existing contacts in the established (read: moderate) gay community to maintain dialogue.
Plus, Target has invested heavily over the past 5+ years in corporate social responsibility and being a progressive employer and buyer. This "bank" of goodwill is available and will eventually pay dividends in this latest detour.
An over-reaction by Target could do serious harm to the rest of goodwill bank. An over-reaction could make Target look like it's "scrambling": unorganized, afraid, doesn't know what it's doing, weak, etc.

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