Blogs & Comment

How should companies memorialize 9/11?

What is required of 'corporate citizenship' in the face of national grieving?

(Photo: Stan Honda/AFP)

(Photo: Stan Honda/AFP)

The day has passed, but it’s a question that’s sure to arise again—just under a year from now, and the year after that, and so on.

What can, or should, businesses do with regard to a relatively recent tragic event like 9/11?

The cultural significance of an event like 9/11 is hard for anyone to ignore, especially on the 10th anniversary of that fateful day. And companies thrive on raising their profiles, a feat that can most readily be accomplished by riding the coattails of cultural significance. But when the culturally-significant event in question is a tragic one, corporations need to tread carefully.

This general topic can be split into two more specific questions:
1) Can or should companies use references to an event like 9/11 in their advertising?
2) Can or should companies do something to memorialize such events?

The pure advertising question seems easy. Using references to 9/11 in ads is tacky, if not outright unethical. (For some examples, see this nice slideshow by Jim Edwards for Bnet:10 Advertisers Exploiting the Sept. 11 Attacks to Push Their Brands.”) Profiting from other people’s pain and grief just isn’t a socially-constructive business strategy.

The problem of course is that it’s hard to separate questions 1 and 2. Naturally, any effort on the part of a company to memorialize an event is likely to be seen as an attempt by that company to raise its own profile.

But memorializing an event like 9/11 in some way seems unobjectionable, and perhaps even obligatory. The hard question is what form such memorializing should take. The best ways, perhaps, are the small-scale and personal ones. Giving employees time off work to attend memorial services, for example. The same principle applies to expressions of sentiment: small and local seems best. A simple sign on your front window that says “Never Forget 9/11” seems to make the point best—better than, say, splashing that same slogan across millions of product packages—and is much less liable to engender suspicions that the expression of sentiment is self-serving.

As a final point, notice that this is precisely the kind of question for which the term “corporate citizenship” provides the right fulcrum. Some people try to use that term to cover all questions of corporate right-and-wrong , but that’s a mistake. Not all obligations or rights are rooted in a weighty concept like citizenship. But this one is. How we respond to national and international tragedies is clearly an issue of citizenship, in the full political sense of that word—the sense that implies a set of rights and responsibilities related to participation in public life. An alternative word like “sustainability,” which some people take to encompass all ethical questions, just doesn’t cut it here. How companies choose to respond to the anniversary of an event like 9/11 says a lot about how they see themselves as corporate citizens, as participating members of a still-grieving community.