A Partnership for Social Change

New Decade, New Point of View, New Collaboration

By Published on .

Michael Ramah
Michael Ramah
As we charge into this new decade, we're all determined to live it better than the awful aughts. But how do we get started? I say by powering up social solutions that converge with our new economic realities.

In the spirit of Reagan beseeching Gorbachev to open up East Berlin more than 20 years ago, it's time to tear down some walls. These walls aren't made of concrete but they are, in a sense, politically charged. They're walls of distrust built up over the years between corporate America and the nongovernment organizations and government agencies that endeavor to educate the public and improve its well-being.

Now is the time for all sides to reach across lines and liberate the potential of a partnership. What I have in mind is a convening of minds -- and resources -- resulting in a win-win situation to enact social change.

Corporations today want to have a stake in their communities, and consumers are holding them to a much higher standard of accountability for the role they play in society than used to be the case. A company's license to operate these days has a much more urgent social responsibility clause, but I'm talking about something different from CSR efforts of the past. This is a more virtuous effort, doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do. The challenge comes as companies consider how to get involved. The public sector has much to gain from private-business resources that can bolster their own expertise and reputation by furthering their goals -- if they can let go of skittishness and bring them on board.

Over the past 15 years, the work of the Gates Foundation has lessened some of the tension by demonstrating clearly altruistic motives divorced from Microsoft Corp. The organization applies very stringent business principles to its operations without conflicts of interest. If earlier foundations were "the right thing to do" 1.0, the Gates Foundation is the 2.0 version. For example, its Washington Family Fund initiative, which provides services to homeless children and their families, brings together a coalition of funding support from Washington state, the Gates Foundation and United Way, as well as Microsoft and Boeing, among other private entities.

But what about pooling resources and power for a fresh new approach to social marketing campaigns that could jump start large-scale social movement? Social marketing, the practice of using marketing principles to address social problems, first got its legs in the 1970s and '80s with the work of renowned marketing thought leaders Philip Kotler, Bill Novelli and Alan Andreasen, particularly in the area of public health. Building on public information campaign successes such as "Smokey Bear" and "Keep America Beautiful," they and others argued that only by bringing to bear all aspects of the marketing toolbox -- not just advertising -- could we truly begin to realize the full impact of the undertaking.

The 4 Ps of marketing -- plus Policy -- proved to be a powerful force in public health. As a result, we've seen successful change through the years on everything from healthier eating (the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid), to diagnosing depression (National Institute of Mental Health campaigns), to cholesterol control (National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute) to preventing HIV (Centers for Disease Control). We need to look back at some of these successes and think about how lessons learned could contribute to solutions for today.

We know that the model works, but how can corporations add value to these campaigns when the public sector is more reluctant than ever to have any taint of commercialism on its work? It's a noble and understandable inclination. But these partnerships can and must put the power of marketing back into social marketing. And now is the perfect time to do so, as social consciousness is peaking and social media has given people a bullhorn for their own platforms.

And, on a more humbling note, with the social and economic divide greater than ever, can we afford not to reopen the case -- and our minds?

How far can we go in revising the old public and private sector models along with corporate models and putting social marketing back to work for a new generation?

Remember Berlin? Many argued that the result of the collapse of the wall would be a new world political order. This has not happened as planned. However, an unintended consequence has been a new world economic order -- one in which economies, not "-isms," prevail. Even so, the argument has been raised that if we take down the wall between the public and private sectors, private interests will cloud the issue.

In fact, self-interest drives both sides. At a point when faith in both private and public institutions has eroded, the time has come for a new direction. Let's face it, Goldman Sachs is not the enemy -- it is a red herring, an easy target when the public does not know where to turn for truth.

Enough. It's time for a new social order -- one truly pro bono publico.

Michael Ramah is partner and director of strategic planning for Porter Novelli, New York.
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