Our School of Journalism at Kent State doesn’t have a famous name like Newhouse or Scripps. And we probably won’t any time soon, given the financial state of the news business.
But let’s say, just for fun, that Rupert Murdoch offers Kent State $10 million to endow “The Fox News School of Journalism…fairness, balance, accuracy, truth.”
Do we take the money and put that slogan above the door? After all, Murdoch and Fox have violated every tenet of journalism we embrace here, including all 4 words in the proposed tagline. Even if the money comes with no strings attached, what would the new “brand” do to our reputation?
When PR = Partner Relationships
An online discussion these past few weeks raises ethical questions about corporate partnerships in the nonprofit world. I picked up on it thanks to an excellent post by Geoff Livingston.
Geoff’s essay involves a decision by the Susan G. Komen Foundation to partner with KFC.
“Pink” chicken? Yeah, it’s weird, but if it brings a ton of cash to fight breast cancer, what’s the problem?
That’s the question Geoff and others focus on. Check his links for some good discussion, but also search “KFC Komen” if you need more.
Partnerships like Komen-KFC raise questions about the charity’s motivation. Is it about finding a cure for breast cancer, or is it about fundraising? And why can’t it be both?
Geoff’s sees the partnership as a bad idea, and places the blame squarely on the Komen Foundation, not KFC. The fried-food giant, he says, is using the partnership to offset damage its product does to public health. Komen earns cash by “dancing with the devil.”
So in my mind the ills in the KFC/Komen partnership lie with a faulty campaign that supports product — fried chicken — which causes breast cancer. It tarnishes the Komen brand and causes more harm than good. Shame on Komen for not managing the use of their brand in a more intelligent fashion. While nonprofits desperately need cash, sacrificing your brand integrity in this fashion represents a major strategic error.
The ethical dilemma is pretty clear.
On the one hand, it is morally defensible for Komen to link with monied partners that provide the cash necessary to fight cancer. On the other hand, the KFC partnership aligns Komen’s popular pink ribbons with a product that contributes to the problem and actually promotes consumption of that product.
In the class, “Ethics & Issues in Mass Communication,” my students spend a lot of time discussing the morality but also the efficacy of business partnerships. We talk of how these partnerships might corrupt the system. But we also acknowledge that nonprofit organizations like Komen are businesses, too. They must raise money to pursue their goals, and partners with deep pockets can help.
Will the KFC-Komen partnership benefit both parties? In the short run, it will. KFC will sell fried chicken in pink buckets, and Komen will earn a tidy sum. Win-win.
But what about long-term damage to the Komen brand? Or are we all just over-reacting. Some, including social-media thought leader Jason Falls, seems to think we are. And he has a point. Jason posted this tweet just last night.
With his challenge, Jason helps us focus on the ethical dilemma. He helps bring us back to center on the issue.
Is fried chicken the best partner for a breast-cancer charity? Probably not.
But if KFC wants to join the fight against a horrible disease, should we slam the door in Colonel Sanders’ face? What should be the litmus test for these partnerships? Or should we rule them out entirely?
Geoff’s concerns are more long-term, and go to the fidelity of the Komen brand. Geoff concludes his post with a list of 7 suggestions to help nonprofits protect their brand value. If you work for one of those nonprofits, read it.
Back to the hypothetical. Do we accept Rupert’s generosity and rename our school? In the short term, we’d be swimming in money, and all of our students would benefit. But in the long run, what’s the fallout from putting fairness, balance, accuracy and truth up for sale?
Maybe it’s not an apt parallel to the Komen-KFC case. But maybe it is.