Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Transparency Bites

There's a firestorm that's erupting over how JPMorgan Chase & Company has fumbled its online contest to award millions of dollars to 100 charities this holiday season, and the incident is sending a stark reminder to socially-conscious companies trying to raise their "good" profile.

The message? Transparency matters (a lot) to today's cause-wired consumers. But that's not all. There's another lesson here that bears repeating, and it is this: don't invite Web-savvy crowds to participate in a "do-good" project without giving them control over the outcome - regardless of what the CEO thinks of it. Online fans and networks, it's clear, cannot be shut down nor controlled once you energize them around open initiatives they care about. Try micromanaging or censoring the people you invite to an online gathering, and you risk being accused of "cause-washing" — or worse.

The Chase brouhaha, in case you missed it over the weekend, first came to light on Saturday, in a New York Times story by reporter Stephanie Strom about how Chase is keeping its customers and Facebook "fans" in the dark about the outcome of a recent online contest it organized to give supporters a chance to vote for their favorite charities. Three nonprofit groups among the candidates for aid — Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, and an anti-abortion group, Justice for All — told Strom they think Chase disqualified them as they began to amass votes because the company "didn't wish to associate its name with their missions" if they won, Strom reported. Strom also wrote that until Chase made changes to its contest in its final days, "these groups appeared to be among the top 100 vote-getters."

But what really has social media advocates miffed is Chase's failure so far to publish the final vote tallies, and to clear up whether it had, indeed, disqualified any of the charities that had participated. Over the weekend, a number of bloggers began criticizing Chase for the allegations, as well as taking the company to task for failing to create a public leader board showing a ranking of the charities based on the votes each charity had received from the more than 1 million people who joined Chase's Facebook fan page to vote.

One blogger, Nathaniel Whittemore of change.org, was especially critical, writing Saturday what he called "an open letter to Chase about their big charity transparency fail." In that post, Whittemore took Chase to task for failing to run the contest in a more transparent way. "You had the potential to build an incredible amount of social oomph with this contest," Whittemore wrote in his "Dear JP Morgan & Chase" letter. "...Now, [most nonprofits I know] think you're just one more system to game. And me? Well, I think it's pretty clear how I feel." Whittemore said that failing to provide a public leader board made Chase executives "look like jerks."

Another blogger, nonprofit social media consultant Beth Kanter, also weighed in, choosing the advent of Pepsi's own online charity contest to write a post a day later entitled, "What Lessons Will Pepsi Learn About Crowdsourcing for Social Change from Chase Bank Contest Fail?" Kanter's post yesterday, about the new Pepsi Refresh Project — another crowdsourced cause marketing project aimed at recognizing influential changemakers in society — also questioned Chase's handling of the contest. "Let's hope [Pepsi] learns from the recent Chase Bank's Online Contest Fail," she wrote. "I hope they avoid going to the dark side and waste (sic) money on projects and processes that don't have impact as well as many nonprofits' most valuable resource: their time." Kanter asked her readers, "What can Pepsi learn so its contest can truly make a difference in local communities, help them sell more soda, and avoid having its brand get tarnished?"

While Chase's official contest rules state clearly that the company "reserves the right to disqualify any charity for any reason whatsoever" — its apparent decision to exercise that right has struck social media advocates as being unacceptable, including the followers and creators of ad-hoc Twitter groups called #chasesucks and #ChaseDoesntCare. Wrote Kanter: "There are some things to think about with a completely open contest, one where anyone can submit an idea and the crowd votes on the best idea and the one with the most votes wins. The sponsor needs to ask if they are truly committed to the idea that gets the most votes, no matter who suggests it."

She has a point. As social media expert Clay Shirky told me earlier this year for a post I wrote for CauseGlobal, social media are starting to require companies and institutions to invent new ways to manage their organizations. Said Shirky in that interview:

"People managing these newly interactive organizations need to start explaining why it is that what they're doing and asking is important. They need to start articulating how people's input is helping the organization and its cause. It really does involve a degree of openness on the part of existing organizations that we haven't seen before. In fact, if you're a manager of a traditional organization looking for control, you will have trouble in this Web 2.0 environment. It's a little bit like the relationship between a trellis and a vine. You can shape it, but the organic growth and the ultimate structure is really going to be produced by the people who come there, and especially by the people you invite."

Okay, now it's your turn. What do you think? How much damage do you think this incident caused to the Chase brand? What do you think are the key lessons about corporate activism and social media to be gleaned from this incident? What would you have done differently if you were running the Chase social media campaign? Let us hear from you

—Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration, Gossip, by Malombra76 for istock.com)

[This post first appeared on Justmeans.com and reposts here with permission]

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