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Corporate Activism in a Government Shutdown: How Brands Are Helping Furloughed Workers

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During the shutdown, my Washington D.C.-area friends and family members were abuzz. As the region hardest hit by the government shutdown, everyone I knew was either furloughed or affected by someone who was furloughed. No one was immune.

People were swapping tips and tricks, creative ideas, strategies, and tactics to stay afloat until their paychecks resumed.

Historically helpful organizations were the first to assist, with houses of worship, nonprofits, and the District itself offering relief—distributing gift cards, diapers, hygiene products, and more. Next came the local mom-and-pop shops and family-owned restaurants, offering discounts or free small plates to furloughed workers who could prove their nonworking status. And as the shutdown raged on for thirty-five days, even enterprise brands started chipping in.

An effective relief effort is a large undertaking, and the bigger the company, the more layers of approval and administration an outreach program must go through. I understand. While no one anticipates a government shutdown, surely, the best companies do brainstorm consumers’ pain points. They anticipate ways to serve.

This past January was one of the most painful experiences for hundreds of thousands of people. And it’s a pain that extended way beyond individual federal workers because when they aren’t paid, they don’t spend, so local businesses felt the hurt, too.

brand activism

Image attribution: Matt

Ways Brands Helped During the Shutdown

Let’s get one thing straight: No one sees a brand’s help as self-serving unless the company tries to leverage the pain for commercial gain.

Before embarking on an activism effort, its essential that brands understand the situations of those whom they are offering assistance and then determine the right channels to run these campaigns. Many workers in tough situations aren’t typically comfortable asking for help, so it seems highly unlikely that they’d turn to social media to broadcast their troubles.

Still, many brands came out in genuine support to lend a hand and demonstrate their specific values. Outdoor clothing brands like REI, Columbia, and The North Face spoke up and encouraged the public to support the maintenance of national parks during the difficult time, a genuine show of solidarity that aligned with their brand mission. And many more industries also stepped up to offer relief to those impacted by the shutdown.

Corporate Activism: You’re Doing it Right

The most inspiring examples used their unique influence and offerings for a new kind of corporate activism, supporting the many people affected by the shutdown.

Financial Relief

Lenders like Chase, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, SunTrust, Ally Financial, Bank of America, and PayPal offered assistance like interest-free credit, cash advances, and deferred payments on bills for federal employees throughout the duration of the furlough.

In addition, auto financers Toyota/Lexus, Hyundai, and Kia officially announced payment extensions or other forms of relief to government workers.

Hunger Security

Countless local restaurants gave away free small plates or discounts to anyone in Washington, D.C. with a government ID, but Chef Jose Andres went a step further. He organized #ChefsForFeds, a movement to rally fellow chefs and restaurateurs to join forces in ensuring no one went hungry because of the shutdown. Instead of making excuses for why he shouldn’t help, he welcomed fresh ideas by coming up with creative ways of his own to get the public involved—nationwide—refusing to rest until government workers’ income was restored.

MGM Resorts also took up an admirable effort to prevent workers from going hungry. Understanding that many federal workers were rarely accustomed to finding and accessing help, the company demonstrated the real meaning of hospitality by bringing boxed lunches straight to furloughed workers! Now that’s inspiring.

Kraft won the day, though, by using its influence to encourage other companies to step up. With the database of helping hands during the shutdown made up of about 95 percent local small businesses and nonprofits, these good-willed organizations were already strained by the nature of their operation. So Kraft encouraged all brands to do their part.

“We are now asking other national and local brands to join forces with us to support the more than 800,000 federal workers impacted,” the company said in a full-page ad in the Washington Post. “Last week we opened a free grocery store in Washington, D.C., and within days a few thousand people picked up a bag of groceries for their families. We’re extending our time there, and we’d be happy to make room for your brand.”

Communications

Hats off, too, to Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T, whose gracious, flexible payment options helped ease the burden of more worried friends of mine than I can count. While some critics were quick to point out that retroactive back pay was approved by lawmakers for those furloughed, missing bills can create an unavoidable mess for anyone. And in challenging times, the last thing people want is to be cut off from loved ones. That’s why the proactivity of these brands set a great example for others.

Companies that are truly looking to help those affected by hardships should just help and leave the gimmicks at the door.

Filling tummies and easing fears goes a long way for the brands who step in. Hurting workers—and likely, their wide social circles—will never forget the companies that put politics aside to help out in early 2019.

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Feature image attribution: Michael Browning

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My DC-area friends and family members are abuzz. As the region hardest hit by the government shutdown, everyone I know is either furloughed or affected by someone who’s furloughed. No one is immune.
People are swapping tips and tricks, creative ideas, strategies, and tactics to stay afloat until paychecks resume again.
The typical players appeared first: houses of worship, nonprofits, and the District itself offered relief.
Next came local mom-and-pop shops. Small restaurants are offering discounts or free small plates to furloughed workers who can prove their non-working status.
Finally, after what felt (to me) like too long, some enterprise brands showed up. Companies compelled to help are saving the day. About a week ago, the tones of our local online conversations took a turn for the better. People started sounding more hopeful again.
I can’t help but wonder what took brands so long. Granted, an effective relief effort is a large undertaking, and the bigger the company, the more layers of approval and administration an outreach program must go through. I understand. But couldn’t companies have done that hard work ahead of time?
No one anticipates a government shutdown, but I do know the best companies brainstorm consumers pain points. They anticipate ways to serve.
Or do they?
So far, this January has been one of the most painful experiences for hundreds of thousands of people. And as economic ripple effects travel, so does the pain. When government workers aren’t paid, they don’t spend, so the local businesses they support soon feel it, too.
[foot traffic]
Image Attribution: Jose Martin Ramirez C
Ways Brands Can Help During the Government Shutdown
If your company has hesitated until now, it’s time to act.
Multiple corporate clients have told me they fear appearing opportunistic or “slimey.” But believe me, the people in need right now aren’t used to accepting handouts, and they could use your reassurance – as well as real help.
The most inspiring examples have used their unique influence and offerings to support the many people affected by the government shutdown.
Financial Institutions
Lenders like Chase, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Suntrust, Ally Financial, Bank of America and PayPal are offering assistance like interest-free credit, cash advances, and deferred payments on bills for federal employees throughout the duration of the furlough. If you need examples to build your case, look no further.
So far, Toyota/Lexus, Hyundai, and Kia are the only auto financers who have officially announced payment extensions or other relief to government workers. Fingers crossed more automotive lenders come out with creative options soon.
Hunger Security
Countless local restaurants are giving away free small plates or discounts to anyone in DC with a government i.d., but Chef Jose Andres has taken the concept further. He’s organizing and scaling #ChefsforFeds, a movement to rally fellow chefs and restaurateurs to join forces and ensure no one goes hungry because of the government shutdown. Just when we think he’s done “his part,” Andres appears again and again to establish another way others can (and should) act. He’s removing excuses by example and refusing to rest until government workers’ income is restored.
But remember, government workers are rarely accustomed to finding and accessing help. MGM Resorts realized this, and instead of inviting government workers to “come and get it,” the brand took the truly hospitable step of bringing boxed lunches straight to the feds! Now that’s inspiring.
Pabst has also appeared just in time, sponsoring #PayItFurloughed, a beer donation platform that lets anyone buy beers for federal workers. The brand (with local helpers) enlist local pubs and breweries to participate at no cost to them. Starting first in DC, the program is now rolling out nationally. Establishing a platform for the exchange is all it took.
Kraft wins the day, though, by using the influence it’s gained to encourage other companies to step up. Look: the database of helping hands is still about 95% local small businesses and nonprofits, organizations already strained by nature of their operation. So Kraft’s callout couldn’t be more relevant.
“We are now asking other national and local brands to join forces with us to support the more than 800,000 federal workers impacted,” the company said in a full page letter printed on prime Washington Post ad space. “Last week we opened a free grocery store in Washington, DC, and within days a few thousand people picked up a bag of groceries for their families. We’re extending our time there, and we’d be happy to make room for your brand.” Applause, applause!
Communications
Hats off, too, to Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T whose gracious, flexible payment options are helping ease the burden of too many worried friends than I can count. Critics are quick to point out that retroactive back-pay has already been approved by lawmakers for those furloughed, but missing bills can create an unavoidable mess for anyone. The proactivity of these brands is an example to others.
How Not to Do It
Earlier I mentioned the lack of suspicion toward brands who reach out to help. In general, no one sees a brand’s help as self-serving. That is, until a company tries to leverage the pain for commercial gain.
Homesnap is facing backlash for asking hurting workers to tag the company in online #ShutdownStories. Their plan is to eventually, maybe choose a few to help.
Do your brand a favor and draw inspiration from enterprises who help because they can. Filling tummies and easing fears can and will go a long way for the brands who step in. Hurting workers (and likely, their circles) will never forget which companies did more than simply play politics in early 2019.
Feature Image Attribution: Michael Browning
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Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and the Content Marketing Institute currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's gig economy. For more, visit bethanyjohnson.com.

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