My first job out of college was working for a small newspaper about an hour from where I grew up. It was in a military town that, at one point, was one of the fastest growing communities in the country. However, by the time I got started working there only a few months after September 11, 2001, the majority of the soldiers on the base had been deployed and many spouses and girlfriends had either moved back home or back to their parents or back to somewhere that wasn't there.
It was a small paper that consisted of one sports writer, three news writers (including myself) and an executive editor who was, frankly, there all the time. One day shortly after I started working there, I got a call about a retail box store who was making a $1,000 contribution to a local charity. It could have been the Boys and Girls Club, the Library Foundation, or something else, I don't remember what it was. Anyway, I went and took the standard photo you've all seen a thousand times (well, you did if you read newspapers) with the giant check and the handshake and smile. They are all the same photos and with a little Photoshop skills, you could replicate the photo for any giant check presentation without having to go through the effort of going to take the picture.
I get back from the event only to learn that the paper's policy is to not run those kinds of photos. Otherwise, the paper would be inundated with picture after picture of organizations donating to charities for the sole purpose of getting their name and picture in the paper. Because the idea of donating money to a charity without some sort of media recognition is just crazy. Why would you donate to the American Cancer Society unless there was a chance to get publicity for yourself.
So you'll forgive me if I come across as cynical after watching CBS' new show Undercover Boss. It's the show in which the CEO of a company goes 'undercover' to work the front lines of his company to learn about what it takes to make his or her business run. He disguises himself and spends a week doing random tasks, all while conveniently being trained by someone with some sort of hardship they've had to overcome in their life. Oh, and there's a camera crew who are explained by saying they're doing a documentary on people doing entry level jobs or some stupid excuse.
Usually the boss is shocked at how hard it is to do these jobs and is impressed with the dedication of his employees who help make whatever company so great. At the end of each episode, the boss summons the people who trained him to corporate headquarters to reveal his true identity and explain why he did what he did. Often, the boss is impressed with the employee and does something to help make their lives better (a raise, institute a new policy or program in response to a need of that employee . . . and yes, they're typically warranted.)
But as I watch the show, I can't help but wonder why the bosses needed cameras around to do this. I mean, aside from the one hour of prime time exposure on a Sunday night for their company and a chance for some really, REALLY good public relations work to be done. It would be just as easy for a CEO to go undercover without the cameras around, but in doing so, they wouldn't get the opportunity to showcase their company in front of millions of viewers (in the case of this past week, roughly 15.5 million viewers).
Whether it's a check for $500 or a chance to showcase your company in front of about one percent of the US population without having to pay for advertising, the idea is the same. Unless there's cameras around and publicity to be gained, doing something nice is overrated.
(My wife demanded I point out that she A) Really likes the show; B) Thinks I'm far too cynical; and C) Thinks the show demonstrates that there are still good people in the world.)