Some weeks ago, I was wondering if there might be a corporate brand willing to rescue Mumbai’s legendary but ailing Strand Book Stall because that would be a fine way for the brand to build its reputation on the back of positive news stories. I call this a corporate-social-responsibility-meets-public relations initiative.
I was reminded of that at the weekend as news arrived about heritage sites being adopted for maintenance by corporate names, with no less than Delhi’s imposing Red Fort being associated with Dalmia Bharat Cement group. There is a controversy raging over the issue with opposition groups targeting the Modi government for “privatising” a monument.
Though the Ministry of Tourism’s effort is (as far as one knows) about providing facilities such as restaurants, street furniture, clean toilets and the like in exchange for Rs 25 crore over a five-year period, extraneous issues about sentiments of the freedom struggle and “selling out” heritage are renting the air. Memes about the monument being called “Dalmia Bharat” Red Fort is part of the mischievous gossip, though that seems unfounded.
Honestly, I see no problem if all the corporate group does is to keep the area better, as long as qualified archaeologists handle the core assets that are the real heritage. Apparently, the monument maintenance scheme is not really a new one. The idea goes back to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s years in power.
Put yourself now in the shoes of a Dalmia Bharat corporate office honcho. It does not matter how the government is criticised if a corporate brand gets its money’s worth in the process in the form of some positive media stories and tax breaks that are attached to the brand. Care must be taken in such cases to ensure that the corporate group does not overdo the act to indulge in activities that will see it as a meddling racketeer. But short of that, the money spent on heritage seems worth it.
This is particularly because such an action does not seem like a whitewash. I have two not-so-good examples to show that a belated attempt at social or environmental responsibility is unlikely to attract positive media attention.
Decades ago, ITC came to me with a press release about a laser-driven water-cleaning arrangement in its toilets at its famous Delhi property, the Maurya. The problem is that only a while earlier, the group had been ticked off by the Delhi Pollution Control Board for not using its water properly. The lame press release smacked of what is typically dismissed as a PR exercise. If a PR initiative is just a whitewash, it is less likely to cut ice with truly professional journalists.
Hindustan Unilever’s controversial brand Fair & Lovely has faced criticism from feminists and social activists for being a tool in reducing women to the colour of their skins and the resulting looks. Clearly to counter such criticism, HUL launched the Fair & Lovely Foundation that offers scholarships, career guidance and online courses for women.
Though the official website says the initiative launched in 2003 “has impacted thousands of women across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia with more countries being covered each year” I do not think the brand’s initial image of being regressive is off the table. The mainstream media, as I recall, did not seem much impressed. Only the ad industry’s inside Kool-Aid drinkers really bought the “enabler” brand story.
In principle, it pays to pursue corporate social responsibility for tax breaks and a generally positive image of a company or brand but overdoing the PR is a bad thing and doing it as a rear-guard action to whitewash a perception damage is not going to do much. It might even be counter-productive.