Steve Cody, co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, co-authored this article.
With all the talk about corporate social responsibility programs, we often lose sight of the fact that "being responsible" must not be a separate line on the to-do list. The core of your business can--and should--find strategic business initiatives that both "do good" and lead to business doing well.
At our strategic communication and marketing firm Peppercomm, we've experienced the benefits of this sort of thinking firsthand.
Want an example? Here's one that's particularly appropriate for Independence Day here in the U.S.: getting involved in initiatives to support military personnel and veterans.
Our work on this issue has allowed us to do something we're passionate about, learn valuable strategic communication lessons, and identify paid business opportunities through the experience we gained from pro bono work.
Getting our start through pro bono work
While neither Steve nor I served in the armed forces ourselves, we have both had a range of opportunities to work with causes surrounding military personnel and veterans that have been both personally gratifying and important to our company. And, critically, our pro bono work on these issues has also opened the doors for client work.
For instance, Steve has been a member of the Civilian Public Affairs Committee at the Military Academy at West Point for seven years now. This committee serves as the superintendent's pro bono counsel for three main purposes: heightening awareness of West Point, enhancing the quality of recruits into the academy, and providing crisis counseling for the organization.
This work gives Steve the chance to serve and learn. And it gives Peppercomm deep insight into processes and issues that, in turn, strengthen our ability to help recruiting efforts and crisis response for a range of our other clients.
In addition, we have, for many years now, hosted annual daylong workshops for approximately 25 members of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. These workshops offer colonel-level soldiers a better understanding of the basics of public relations and public affairs before being deployed in an active war zone.
Earning our stripes with high-profile PSA work
Building on our passion for supporting military personnel and veterans, Steve and I had the great fortune in 2009 to help lead Peppercomm's involvement in a pro bono project, via the Ad Council, with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (or IAVA). The work focused on raising awareness of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, among both veterans and the general population.
After serving in Fallujah or Kandahar, many vets returned to communities that had no understanding of what they had been through. For these soldiers, PTSD was particularly debilitating. One other main task was to promote an online group called the Community of Veterans, which helped connect veterans virtually so that they could have a closed, private support network of people who had been through similar experiences.
Our efforts for the Ad Council initiative generated awareness for our firm. Having the opportunity to work alongside passionate leaders like Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA's founder, taught us a great deal about public advocacy. And the intimate understanding we received of the veterans community helped us think more deeply about the evolving role of community management in public relations.
New business opportunities from pro bono work
But the benefits of this work went beyond intangible rewards. Our pro bono projects also led directly to new business opportunities, including some that allowed us to continue working on veterans' issues.
For instance, we have had various chances to counsel existing clients on how to better engage with veterans and military families.
And we helped Hope for the Warriors redesign its logo and corporate identification, and also managed local-market awareness for the group in a range of Midwest markets. (The organization is a national nonprofit that provides a range of support to military personnel who have suffered physical or psychological harm in battle, as well as their families.)
Becoming a commissioned agency
Ultimately, all those projects led us to major new business opportunities. Stemming directly from our work, we had the great pleasure of partnering with Siemens on social-media engagement surrounding that company's participation in the White House's Joining Forces program, in which Siemens pledged to dedicate significant resources to recruiting, hiring, and teaching skills to veterans.
As with our involvement in military issues over the years, Siemens got involved with supporting military personnel and veterans because of the debt our country owes those who serve. But Siemens also did so because the skills, training, and discipline veterans bring to their civilian jobs are of major benefit to the organization.
The Peppercomm team led an initiative with Siemens employees who previously served in the military, through the company's internal Veterans Network. This team (none of whom were traditional company spokespeople or trained communication professionals) went through training to understand how to best provide online advice to veterans currently going through the transition to civilian life.
Employees participating in the program ranged from those who had only recently made the transition to those who had been with Siemens for many years. They all reached out through online commenting, videos, and podcasts to provide insight into understanding the civilian workplace and how to translate what military personnel do into nonmilitary terms.
The work was gratifying for the Siemens employees who participated. And the company's dedication to not just the recruitment but the larger transition process led to a recruiting initiative that far exceeded expectations.
The work was rewarding for us as well. It was a great client project Peppercommers were proud to work on. And most important of all to our direct business, it led to multiple other projects with Siemens, unrelated to veterans issues.
And, as we continue our sustained focus on finding ways to help organizations help our veterans, we hope to uncover new pro bono and business opportunities alike that will help us continue to increase our rank.
Debrief: How (and why) you could benefit from work with veterans
So business leaders, how might you engage with military personnel, their families, and veterans this year?
Here are four things you can do:
- Hire some veterans. Look hard into the jobs you have available and where they match up with the hard and soft skills people gain through military service. And, if the opportunity presents itself, prioritize military service in your hiring practices. You won't be sorry. (We've counted various veterans among our ranks over the years here at Peppercomm, and our company has been well served by them.)
- Offer internship, job shadowing, or mentorship opportunities to returning veterans. It provides a great chance for your employees to share what they've learned with others, while also helping ease the transition process for veterans.
- Strike up partnerships with veterans organizations. Your company could provide discounts, extra services, or additional incentives to military personnel or veterans, and their families. It shows veterans some appreciation for serving, and it also gives you a chance to potentially gain new customers--not just from veterans but also from their families and friends.
- Get involved in advisory opportunities on veterans issues on your area. As more businesses commit resources to help with this key issue for our country, it provides great opportunities to meet potential partners and clients, and discover business opportunities with others who are also passionate about this issue.
Dedicating yourself to an issue--whether it be transitioning veterans to the work force or another cause about which you're passionate--will energize your employees. It will give you great networking opportunities. It will bolster your reputation in the communities you serve.
But, if you put true organizational focus on it, the results won't only be intangible. Your pro bono work might also lead to discovering a great new employee, forming a new partnership, or building new business opportunities.