Column: Owning the issue

February 11, 2013  |  Andrea Donlan and Jim Diorio  |  Comments

Every year, more businesses include some form of community investment in their annual planning. Getting the most out of the impact and investment of good corporate citizenry is crucial.

Bell, for example, has done a remarkable job with its commitment to mental health. While mental health awareness had previous support from corporate Canada, it was largely under the radar. Bell made headlines by bringing major (and long overdue) public attention to it. The effort is remarkable for its scope and refreshing openness.

Many companies wish they could “own” an issue as well as Bell. However, the space has become crowded, and choosing one that’s somewhat unique, relevant and compelling is getting tougher. Yet there are still lots of ways to stand out. And if another corporate player is already working in an area you’re interested in, you can still find a niche within the issue, and frame it distinctively.

Like everything, social issues have their moment. So what are 2013’s hot issues that could benefit from some high-profile corporate leadership?

Public interest highlights an issue more than anything else, and several bullying tragedies have dominated both the media and water coolers across North America recently. You don’t need to tell Canadians that there’s a problem: they’re desperately looking for some leadership and action on it from anywhere.

Aboriginal Education
Canadians are more aware than ever that the root causes of the problems facing Aboriginal peoples have not been addressed. And because real change happens in the mainstream, not the margins – where this issue has lived forever – bringing it into the spotlight is essential. Focusing on a fundamental, such as educating Aboriginal children, would provide ample opportunities for inspiring storytelling about the next generation’s enormous promise.

Coke has started the ball rolling, but this issue has largely been handled by highlighting the problem. People still haven’t adopted or fully understand the changes required. A visible and vocal corporate leader could get this cause noticed as well as bring attention to the system changes required, such as more bike lanes and better workplace policies.

Safe Sex
Like viruses, issues and their public profile have a life cycle. And while the attention around this one has been dormant, the diseases most definitely aren’t. There don’t appear to be any current large-scale sexual health PSA programs targeting youth, yet statistics show that STDs and STIs are still a major issue for young people. (And when was the last time you saw a sexual health campaign targeting older Canadians?) Expect this issue to become a hot-button one again soon.

Andrea Donlan

Financial Literacy
There’s a huge opportunity, if not a responsibility, for a corporate citizens to stand up, take the lead on a major Canadian problem and help Canadians deal with their unprecedented debt levels. Helping someone with their money is a big deal, and it’ll be noticed.

Of course, this list is anything but complete. Pedestrian safety, cancer control and domestic violence are just a handful of other deeply engaging issues that are rapidly becoming major public concerns. They’re crying out for support, and since that support isn’t coming from the same old places it used to, if a smart business or two wants to step up and play their part, the stage – and the spotlight – have never been more ready.

Jim Diorio

What comes with having the spotlight, of course, is all the work you do when you’re not in it. The best corporate social responsibility commitments are exactly that – commitments. If real change is going to happen, they must involve real, ongoing time and effort, and meaningful activities well beyond the public and PR pushes.

Andrea Donlan is president and CEO of Manifest Communications.
Jim Diorio is Manifest’s vice-president and chief idea officer.

A version of this column originally appeared at

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