Charitable PR: One perspective

Right about now, you’ve probably grown a little bored of “My Christmas PR Wish” series.  We’ve viewed a few films, a few made-for-T.V. movies and a book. All 7 have shown that communications pros really are being made to be “the new Scrooges”.

We’ve had some fun, and between now and December 21st, I’ll wrap things up with lists of more films, shows and books.

But today, I’d like to delve into something a little more serious.  The documentary Poverty, Inc. ( 2010, M. M. Miller, Dir./Prod., et al) isn’t a holiday documentary per say.


Screenshot of the Poverty, Inc. website showing all the ways you can watch the 2010 documentary

But, there are holiday elements in the doc (as my son and his fellow film students refer to them).  Plus, at a time when charitable and religious organizations are making their end-of-the-year plea for tax-deductible giving, and everyone is in the giving spirit (maybe), it’s a good time to take a look at it from a public relations and marketing perspective.


The PR and Marketing Perspective of Poverty, Inc.

Poverty, Inc. takes a look at how we, in Western nations, want to give to “poorer” nations, but the systems that we use aren’t working.  They name this broken system “paternalism” and define it as “the rich patronize the poor . . . the poor resent the rich”.  The film intelligently presents its case without being in your face like some documentaries can be. In fact, in the beginning of the doc, they commend those who give for doing so out of a sincere desire to help. It’s just that those of us who do so, are not aware of how this “charity” actually affects the  people to whom we are giving. The purpose of Poverty, Inc. is to educate us about those affects and challenges us to rethink our giving.

The Christmas and Holiday spin

They know it’s Christmas, so stop spreading rumors

“Do They Know it’s Christmas” was a song written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in response to the famine in Ethiopia (1983-85). It was sung and recorded in one day by big-name rock stars of the day who called themselves Band Aid.  The song was supposed to bring attention to the plight of the Ethiopian people, sparking a global response of charity.


Poverty, Inc. claims that every time this song is played, it

perpetrates a false image of Africa as barren and a sentimental image of Africans as helpless and dependent . . . here we are a generation later and the same song, the same lyrics and the same silliness, the same images are back of Africa not having any rain, not having any river, and us Africans not knowing that it’s Christmastime. – Magette Wade, founder of Tiosson, as quoted in Poverty, Inc

The doc continues to lay out how the media, and public relations firms that handle socially responsible Western manufacturers feeds these same images of Africa and other developing nations to the world, giving people false ideas about these nations and their people.

The doc presents a number of ways those false images lead to Western charity that does more harm than good. One of those ways is to create an entire generation of people who cannot provide for themselves and must continue to rely upon the “aid industry” to provide their basic needs instead of allowing them to work and provide for their own families. In our giving, we have taken away people’s dignity and spirit.

It’s amazing to see how one little Christmas song with good charitable intentions could, with immense ongoing help from the media and PR firms, actually do more harm than good.

Toms shoes, a socially responsible company, is one example that is highlighted. The popular shoe company’s owner came up with an idea called “One For One” where every time someone purchases a pair of “Toms”, the company gives a version of the shoe to someone “in need”.  It has become the company’s main marketing and public relations focus. The doc explains that that the “unintended consequence of this, of course, is that there is a local cobbler there as well” that has eventually been put out of business because of Tom’s shoes.

Why would you go buy something? It’s for free. And to add to this complex situation, that truck doesn’t show up all the time. Our donations have an unpredictable impact on the local economy.  – Andreas Widmer, Dir. of Entrepreneur Programs, Catholic University of America, as quoted in Poverty, Inc.


Toms shoes, they found the right model that, I don’t want to say exploits, but capture this love of people who want to be generous and helpful, and they combine that to some kind of NGO model to keep dumping free stuff on the market. – Daniel Jean Louis, Partners Worldwide, Haiti as quoted in Poverty, Inc.

Of course, the media, PR, marketing and communications pros aren’t the only ones to blame for this aid “crisis”; the doc shows how the Western governments have a stake in the aid game.

Poverty, Inc. challenges the media, PR campaign[ers], and celebrity spokespeople to rethink the poverty aid industry and to think of the people we want to help as equals.

If you are a member of the media, or a PR/marketer who works for a company, NGO or religious charity, this is definitely something to think about this Christmas.

What do you think? If you haven’t watched Poverty, Inc  yet, you might want to.  It might be a little to late to rethink your campaigns,press releases, articles and stories for this year, but there’s always next Christmas.







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