Monday was Remembrance Day here in Canada (and Veterans Day in the U.S.) Not only did millions of people take a moment to thank veterans and to honour those who served and those who died in combat, so did quite a few companies. This has always been the case. Storefronts have long featured signs around this time of year that say, “Thank You to Our Veterans” or “Lest We Forget.”
But now we have Twitter and other social media. Now the expression of such sentiments can be even cheaper (in both senses of the word). And the nature of social media is such when a company’s gesture is taken as crossing the line into crass exploitation, it can readily go viral. Some have even suggested that it is disrespectful for companies to tweet about Remembrance Day at all—companies generally communicate for just one reason, and that’s to build sales.
(I wrote two years ago about the similar problem with businesses memorializing 9/11.)
It’s a fine line, ethically. Because there is little that is nobler than wanting to say thank you to those who served and sometimes died so that we can enjoy the freedoms we enjoy. But there is little that is more ugly than using a solemn occasion to one’s own narrow economic advantage.
Ethics is partly about outcomes—we want people to do things that will do more good than harm, and that will be respectful of other people’s rights. But ethics is also about intentions. If the intention behind a Remembrance Day tweet is noble—if the social media staffer who posted the tweet really does just want to express heartfelt thanks—then the tweet is arguably a good thing. But if the tweet emanates from the marketing department, in a cynical attempt to boost sales by pulling heart strings, that’s a different matter altogether.
And guess what? Intentions are terribly hard to judge from the outside. That’s at least as true for corporations as it is for individual humans. What did the Hudson’s Bay Co. intend in tweeting its thanks to Canada’s armed forces? Is there even an answer to that question, let alone one we could divine from the outside?
So the safe advice, from a PR point of view, might be to avoid the Remembrance Day or Veterans Day tweets altogether. Even if your intentions are pure, avoiding the tweets means you avoid the possibility of being misunderstood. But from an ethical point of view, there may be times when a company with the right intentions should craft its message carefully (to minimize the risk of the sentiment being misunderstanding) and send it anyway.
Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education and Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management