Students can find PR lessons on page one…

…if only they’d read the paper!

goodwillI redirected this blog a few months back to focus on issues that support my teaching and, I hope, the teaching of other PR profs. Here’s a simple lesson I spotted in my local newspaper today, and it’s a lose-lose situation for an organization that deserves better.

In today’s Akron Beacon Journal, columnist/reporter Bob Dyer (they do double and triple duty these days) wrote about a local woman who’s been dumpster diving behind the Goodwill store in Tallmadge, Ohio. It’s a classic hero-and-villain story that puts Goodwill in a bad light — and unfairly so.

And as we all know, journalists love stories with heros and villains. It’s one of the first things students learn in journalism school — or in my case, in a media relations class.

The hero: Meet Marion Lesher, a good samaritan who’s been fishing usable items out of the trash bin behind the Goodwill store. She salvages all sorts of stuff, from small appliances like curling irons and can openers to dolls and plush toys. She cleans and repairs them, then donates the items to a local homeless shelter. This 63-year-old woman, who is disabled and gets around in a motorized cart, can ony be called a saint.

The villain: While Dyer’s story doesn’t cast Goodwill as an “evil” villain, it does paint the organization as wasteful and uncaring. We learn in the story that Goodwill routinely tosses out hundreds of items donated by well-meaning supporters. Only deep in the story — on the jump page —  do we learn that most of these are items are things Goodwill cannot sell in its stores for a range of reasons.

Some of the discarded items are in disrepair, and Goodwill doesn’t have the staff or resources to fix them. Besides, how much time do you invest in fixing a lamp that fetches $2.50 at retail?

And while some of the electrical items are in working order, guidelines of the Consumer Product Safety Commission make them risky resale items. Besides, would you want to use someone else’s curling iron? Or a secondhand can opener that might have a frayed cord or rusty blade? Think of the liabilities alone.

A Goodwill spokesperson explained its policies to the writer, but still lost the PR battle in this story. Overall, the piece casts Goodwill as wasteful and, by implication, ungrateful to its donors. That is unfortunate and unfair, but today it’s front-page news.

I can’t speak to the facts in this particular story, but I do know that too many well-intentioned donors use the Goodwill boxes as a dump for things they’d never use themselves. So why would anyone want to BUY them?

Long ago, I did some pro bono work for a Goodwill operation — wonderful people doing important work.  But each day they hauled away 1 or 2 large dumpsters of donated goods that just weren’t fit for resale for a number of reasons. Goodwill stores, like any other retail operation, must turn their inventory quickly to remain viable. If it doesn’t sell, it gets dumped.

But aren’t Goodwill Stores there to help the poor? No. Sure, Goodwill stores are a good place to shop if you need a bargain, and that helps our low-income citizens.  But the stores are a fundraising mechanism that let’s Goodwill do the really important work. Lots of folks don’t know this.

Goodwill’s central mission, according to its website, is “education, training, and career services for people with disadvantages, such as welfare dependency, homelessness, and lack of education or work experience, as well as those with physical, mental and emotional disabilities.”

Nowhere in that mission does it say: Sell used curling irons to poor people.

So today I’m feeling sorry for the people at my local Goodwill Industries. They do outstanding work and should be applauded. But today they find themselves in a lose-lose situation — a villain in a story that really has no heroes.

What could Goodwill have done to avoid this negative publicity? And what, if anything, should it do in response?

Update: 4:45 p.m., 9/17/09 From the Associated Press:

…Goodwill Industries now locks the trash bins and has asked police to help keep people away.

Goodwill regional vice president Valerie Still says the charity doesn’t want trash pickers hurting themselves. She also says a large portion of the discarded items are products deemed unsafe by federal watchdogs.

Ouch. Locking the dumpsters is the right thing to do. It really is. But slamming them on the fingers of St. Marion of Tallmadge isn’t gonna set well with some folks, many of whom are Goodwill customers and supporters.

Is there a way to compromise? A way to let Marion and folks like her pick through the leftovers? Maybe that isn’t possible. But this reaction by Goodwill just escalated the public discussion. Something tells me the local yakkers on WNIR-FM will be all over this one — if they aren’t already.

Update #2: 7:125 a.m., 9/18/09:

This story from today’s Beacon Journal has me wondering about the timing of yesterday’s story about Marion. Turns out the Jim Gibbons, CEO of Goodwill Industries International, was in Akron yesterday to address the Akron Roundtable. He was quick to point out that Goodwill’s mission is about helping people find jobs. It’s not about the the stores.

In the end, the story is a fluff piece about the speech, and it never mentions the dumpster issue. The PR folks at Goodwill can’t be too upset, even though it ran along the gutter on page 3 and doesn’t say much of local interest.

But it has me wondering about the timing. On the day Gibbons comes to town, a negative story about Goodwill appears on page 1. Just sayin’.


9 Responses to Students can find PR lessons on page one…

  1. […] Students can find PR lessons on page one… « ToughSledding – view page – cached I redirected this blog a few months back to focus on issues that support my teaching and, I hope, the teaching of other PR profs. Here’s a simple lesson I spotted in my local newspaper today, and it’s a lose-lose situation for an organization that deserves better. — From the page […]

  2. Breeze says:

    I’m not sure what they could have done, other than plead their case to the columnist in question. Or at least suggest that the angle portrayed be more focused on the actual positive outcome of the situation.

    In truth, the overall theme of the story is uplifting–someone, from the goodness of her heart, is able to make use of those items that Goodwill cannot use. I can’t fault Goodwill for abiding by the limits of liability; I’m sure there’s even a constraint on their setting aside these items for the woman in question (so she wouldn’t have to dumpster-dive for them).

    Perhaps, though, the columnist is getting exactly what he hoped for–a little controversy generated, a little debate/discussion fostered, and maybe some extra page hits. After all, if the feel-good tack had been taken, would you have blogged about it?

  3. They could go green.

    Provided Goodwill centers had localized infrastructure capable of supporting it, as well as accessible reclamation facilities able to cheaply and/or freely accept large quantities of unusable wares on a daily basis, then Goodwill could simply recycle what they can’t resell.

    Goodwill was the target in this story, though it could’ve been the Salvation Army, Purple Heart, any thrift store or your local church. You’d be surprised at the garbage citizens drop off at these places. Old paint, car batteries, medical waste. It’s appalling. That aside, this is one of those stories that today’s average reader only reads the first half and hastily casts judgment before understanding Goodwill’s side.

    Perhaps that’s more appalling. C’mon, people, it’s freakin’ Goodwill. Let he who cast the first stone, already.

  4. CJE says:

    1. That columnist is an old-fashioned troublemaker. No one in this area hasn’t been victimized by his BS before.

    2. Goodwill has plenty of skeletons in their closets, particularly locally. Regardless of whether they can overcome this particular issue, there are systemic issues with their operations that demonstrate a huge disconnect between what they are and what they want you to think they are.

  5. Mike Keliher says:

    Throwing stones at Goodwill, are they? Who’s next, Mother Theresa?

    Nowhere in Goodwill’s defense did anyone say, “Besides, how much time do you invest in fixing a lamp that fetches $2.50 at retail?” If they’d have explained that preparing some of this stuff for sale would cost more — do more harm than good — that would have been a good start, no?

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    I didn’t get into the legal issues involved here, as I’m not qualified to discuss them. But if that used curling iron electrocutes someone, the litigators will line up to sue Goodwill for selling a faulty product. And what types of germs and bacteria might be lurking inside that Teddy bear?

    Point is, Goodwill must strive to sell ONLY merchandise that is both safe and appealing. A used lamp is probably OK, provided it has good wiring. But items that contain electric motors and the like should be sent to the dumpster and should stay there.

    Dino seems to speak from experience as to the crap people will drop in a Goodwill bin. My own experience supports his. People will donate just about anything, including old underwear, complete with the racing stripe. Yuk!

    Breeze, it would be nice to make these items available to those who want them — maybe even a “free” section in the backroom of the store. But everyone would have to sign a waiver of liability, and even then the lawsuits would follow.

    What we see on today’s front pages isn’t good journalism. But as Mike points out, Goodwill might have done a better job framing the story to achieve balance.

    Lose-lose. Dino, I think you used that term with the “dead chicken” story a few posts back.

  7. Katie Greenwald says:

    I understand the Goodwill’s perspective, but it’s hard to justify such wasteful behavior.

    One thing I think some readers might miss is that the Goodwill isn’t the one creating the waste, just as Waste Management isn’t the one creating the trash. It’s the members of our society that are too wasteful (self included). And it may not be possible for the Goodwill to recycle items such as lamps.

    My hope is that this story won’t turn out to be lose-lose for the Goodwill. Maybe it will help put some of the responsibility back on to the donors. Maybe donors will start to give more consideration to the items they’re donating. If so, this story could ultimately save the Goodwill resources and money.

  8. @Bill: “Can’t-win PR” I believe. This pretty much qualifies.

    @CJE: Okay, you brought it up. What skeletons?

  9. Re: Goodwill’s “wasteful behavior”–most around here are pretty clear about what they can and cannot take. When I lived in the Chicago area, you would pull up your car, items had to remain in the trunk. They would do a cursory review, and give back any items they couldn’t accept. They would then unload the items that they could accept–you didn’t even have to leave your car if you didn’t want to. It was a pretty slick operation, and they presumably avoided situations like this because they did the sorting at intake.

    I don’t think any of the donation sites take any children’s items, except for clothing; Bill is correct in that the liability risk is too high.

    Most of these centers have become accustomed to being dumping grounds for things that people have kept for far too long. The only thing I can think of would have been to invite the reporter to witness the sorting process, preferably after a long weekend.

    It wouldn’t help with the wastefulness, but it might engender some empathy for what those employees have to deal with on a regular basis.

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