When It Is Absolutely, Positively Best To Disavow Credit For Doing A Responsible Thing

Years ago I had read an article on Non Profit Quarterly, Six Things Nonprofits Can Teach Small Business. According to the story, non-profit leaders often exhibited stronger leadership qualities than their for-profit business colleagues.

The six qualities generally address treating employees and constituencies with dignity, integrity, attentiveness and honesty.

One of the qualities dealt with being sensitive to the timing of certain decisions.

Timing is important. Leaders must be proactive, but anticipate the need to react. It is necessary to make sure all of the pieces are in place and understand how many situations should be handled before putting out a product or service. Reacting too early can damage relationships with clients, investors, and the public. A nonprofit CFO describes the importance of timing:

“The Red Cross upgraded its emergency help phone system after 9/11 with funds raised for the disaster; this rubbed donors the wrong way when it was reported in the media. So timing isn’t just about doing the right thing at the right time; executives need to be aware of the perceptions of that timing.”

I was reminded of this while listening to a recent episode of This American Life where the reporting team was provided access to the Starbucks racial bias training day when all the company owned stores were closed.

During the interview with him, then Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was emphatic about disassociating the bias training day from previous corporate initiatives which encouraged people to vote or be good stewards of the environment. Those efforts had resulted in positive associations for the company and have been recognized as good marketing.

If you read the transcript of the interview, Schultz basically asks the interviewer to stop citing the halo effects that resulted from previous initiatives. He kept insisting the bias training was an effort to start fixing their corporate culture and not an attempt to generate goodwill among the public.

Kelefa Sanneh: Yeah. When I suggested this to Howard, that this racial bias training thing had something to do with marketing Starbucks, he didn’t go for it.

[…]
Kelefa Sanneh: I want to make sure I understand this. You say this is not a marketing event. And obviously, to some people, anything that a company does kind of looks like marketing. How is this different from a marketing event?

Howard Schultz: This is the antithesis of a marketing event. It’s not something that is– it has nothing to do with trying to sell anything. Marketing is about creating awareness and selling your product. This is not– we’re not trying to sell anything.

Then the reporter, Kelefa Sanneh and host Ira Glass have a conversation about Schultz’ reaction which actually included the Starbucks PR person calling them and saying they might not want This American Life’s presence at the training if it was going to be a gotcha story about how Starbucks was trying to generate positive PR for themselves.

Ira Glass OK. All right, here’s the theory. Is it possible that he is so insistent that there’s no marketing in it because, yeah, he knows that anything his company does publicly affects how the public sees his brand. Like, of course doing anything like this is a kind of marketing.

But he doesn’t want to admit it because actually, underneath it, he actually is trying to do a good thing. He’s trying to actually address racism. He thinks America is too racist. He wants to do something about it. And he just feels like, oh, if we start admitting that there’s some marketing, or we get some brand halo from this, that’s just going to muddy the message.

Kelefa Sanneh Yeah, although what’s weird is, this isn’t the first time Starbucks has tried to do a good thing, right? They’ve had environmental initiatives. They had this voting thing, which he was happy to say the voting thing was good marketing. So in a sense, this isn’t new for Starbucks.

But what is new is that this is a racism initiative. And I think he has a sense that racism is so incendiary, so sensitive, that it can’t have anything to do with marketing. Like, if there’s any sense that this has anything to do with marketing Starbucks, people are going to tune it out or maybe worse, right?

Ira Glass Right, because it would be offensive.

Kelefa Sanneh Yeah, this idea, like, you’re taking America’s national sin of racism and using that to sell coffee. People might consider that offensive.

This exchange in the episode reminded me of the Non Profit Quarterly piece. It made me wonder, was this recognition by Starbucks a sign that the qualities mentioned are starting to permeate society a little more?

Emotional Intelligence is certainly not the sole province of non-profits. (And I am sure no small number of employees of non profits may be wondering where their share of emotional intelligence in the workplace is being stored.)

It is good to see the CEO of a corporation the size of Starbucks exhibiting the level of awareness about the situation that he was. There is obviously a profit motive in not screwing up the way the company responds to the recent instances of racial bias in their stores, but they probably could have glossed it over with less expenditure of effort, concern and money.

I have never really been a Starbucks fan and as much as I am complimenting them here, I am pretty unlikely to increase my visits. But I probably won’t more actively avoid their stores either.

Taken together, both the NPQ article and the This American Life transcript can serve as a reminder to be deliberate and thoughtful in decision making. Perhaps more importantly, that there is value in doing so even if the efforts of non-profits so often get overlooked.

Quality Character Development And World Building Is Not A Game (Actually, It Is)

If you are a person of a certain age, you may find that the love of Dungeons and Dragons you secretly harbored as a youth is finally gaining some respectability thanks to shows like Stranger Things and common interests with video gaming, anime/manga, cosplay, comic books, etc which has insured its presence at conventions across the nation.

Even if you aren’t particularly enamored of the game, as people interested in artistic and creative expressions, you might do well to pay attention to the storytelling elements of games like Dungeons and Dragons and think about how you might tap into this practice as a method of creating new work.

To be clear. I am not necessarily talking about creating new work based on fantasy settings. I am just thinking about the fact that there are a lot of people out there engaged in the process of world building and exploring what makes for an interesting story and character traits/backstory.

Right now there is an explosion of groups creating 3-4 hour videos of their gaming sessions on a weekly basis.

While I haven’t had an opportunity to evaluate them all, for me the current gold standard is Critical Role which features “a group of nerdy-ass voice actors playing Dungeons and Dragons.” What I appreciate about them is the amount of effort they put into the game. They follow the rule about showing and not telling in the process of fleshing out their character.  There is still a lot of out of character, off color commentary, but they definitely have invested themselves in their roles and upped the stakes for themselves in terms of embodying flawed rather than clearly heroic entities since they moved into a new campaign in January.

Another long lived, though intermittent group is Acquisitions, Inc which started podcasting games a decade ago. They have a “spin off” group called The C Team that videocasts session on a more regular basis.

Wizard of the Coast which owns the Dungeons and Dragons property has really been supporting this trend  with their own groups like Dice, Camera, Action. In the last month, they drew attention to other groups like UK based High Rollers; all female gaming group, Girls, Guts, Glory, and new Chicago based group Rivals of Waterdeep.

Wizards is making a pretty clear attempt to show that everyone can enjoy participating in creating stories and building worlds regardless of race, gender or geography. In the process of checking out those participating in a recent roll out event at the start of June, I discovered some members of a relatively noteworthy group who podcast their adventures lives within 20 miles of me.

It has all got me thinking about different opportunities. These might consist of checking out local groups and inviting them to present one of their gaming sessions publicly in one of our spaces.  Or as I suggested earlier, consider if there some project we could collaborate on which tapped into the world building and storytelling process.  The result could be anything from a dramatization of a local story to periodic pop up of multi-media experiences projected on the side of buildings and other structures to public art installations.

I really see this as a tool/process to involve people in a project who might not normally feel they had the capacity or permission to create and contribute.

Opt In To Learn How The Show Ends

In somewhat the same theme as the post I made last week about Tu Me Manques  which uses social media to tell the story of a relationship, I had also come across an article in May about Pirates & Mermaids, a one person show about a long distance romance that “unfolds through texts between the two main characters, shared photographs, and good old-fashioned storytelling by the fire.”

What drew me to the story wasn’t the use of social media in the show. The show doesn’t appear to rely on the availability of live Wifi like Tu Me Manques does. It was the way the production company, Poorboy, was using social media to keep connected with their audiences. In the case of Pirates & Mermaids, it was ending the show with a cliffhanger that created some incentive for providing your email to Poorboy.

After the show finishes, audience members are offered a postcard where they can share a message about the performance and share their email address with the production team. Those who opt in receive two follow-up emails from Cameron that lets them know what happens next.

It is a creative and fun way of engaging audiences beyond the performance by building the story into the marketing. Plus, it’s a smart way to build a mailing list because it encourages people to opt in to email communications by giving them something more than a marketing message that they can really to look forward to. The messages that come back from audiences give an insight into audiences’ emotional investment in the story.

One thing I should note is that they tend to do the show for small groups of people so they already generate a degree of intimacy with audiences. The postcards and emails they get in response are more often addressed to the character, Cameron, encouraging him onward rather than commenting on how well the production team did their job. They have had about 150 performances over the last six year and have an email list of 800 people which they say represents 75% of their audiences opting in to the email list.

Some quick math indicates they are performing for audiences of 7-8 people (the article says they limit site specific shows to a max of 15) so this is hardly a cynical attempt to trick people into helping them fatten their marketing database. They say their email open rates for the show are 75%-80%, which is better than the open rates for their other productions which use different social media techniques to connect with audiences.

According to the article, they do transition people from the show email list to their newsletter. The piece doesn’t really mention whether they specifically ask if people want to be included in the newsletter list or not. My guess is that since the production company is based in the UK, it will need to be very deliberate in how they handle those email addresses now that new regulations went into effect across the European Union at the end of May.

In any case, their process represents an option for engaging audiences that people might like to explore a little more deeply.

Hello, I Am Thespis-App, I Will Be Narrating Your Play Tonight

Amid the whole debate about whether cell phones are appropriate in the theater are some indications that creative folks are going to be using the technology to drive narrative.

FastCompany came out with their 100 Most Creative People in Business list. Whenever something like that comes out, I always want to see if anyone from the arts and culture sector got included.

Indeed, there are some great stories about: Flocabulary which is using hip-hop to teach kids everything from history to math and science; Keir Winesmith who is using technology to deliver content of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, including to your cell phone anywhere in the world; Ane Crabtree, the costume designer for the apocalypse (Westworld and Handmaid’s Tale, among others); and Hannah Beachler, production designer for movies Black Panther, Moonlight and Creed.

But it is the work of playwright and filmmaker Rodrigo Bellott I am referencing when I talk about productions which use social media and cell phones to drive narrative.

Bellott is now revolutionizing theater. His 2015 play, Tu Me Manques, about the suicide of his closeted lover, includes a live hourlong Skype conversation, projected on multiple screens, and live Facebook messaging. He was told by Broadway producers that it couldn’t be done; the possibility of losing Wi-Fi connection made it too risky. So he produced it in Bolivia, a country with what he calls “the worst WiFi in the world.” The sensational result (the biggest box office in a decade) encouraged hundreds of young Bolivians to come out, in a country not known for its LGBTQ rights. Now, Tu Me Manques is not only moving to Broadway in early 2019, it is a film, debuting at numerous film festivals this summer and fall.

Bellott is currently producing a play, a murder mystery, that will use a cell phone app as narrator.

I found a video (below) of Tu Me Manques which illustrates the Skype call and Facebook messaging. One interesting thing about the Bolivia production which was mentioned on FastCompany’s summary of the 100 Creatives was that Bellott had to use cellphone jammers to keep their signals from interfering with his Wifi. I wondered if that would be the case for the Broadway show or if the standards and strength of Wifi and cell phones signals would be distinct enough to make it successful.

It will be worthwhile to observe how he pulls off the cellphone app as a narrator for his next show. The murder mystery format seems conducive to any number of approaches.

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