Collecting 1.3 Million Shoes for Charity

“We have the responsibility to receive the truth when we are confronted with it,” George “The Shoeman” Hutchings told a group of about 30 kids and adults at the Ethical Society of Mid Rivers, Missouri meeting May 15.

Hutchings was there to explain how he developed a grassroots organization to provide footwear and clean drinking water to people in underdeveloped nations.

Hutchings was a Marine sergeant, earning a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. After being wounded and flown to Alaska, he was touched by the simple act of a nurse placing a blanket over him. That was the first “truth” Hutchings said he opened himself up to. He then went on to seminary school and worked on several humanitarian projects.

In 1998, he was in Kenya delivering 30,000 pairs of shoes to orphans and refugees. Later he worked in an African town with a medical center that had no water, yet delivered two infants within 20 minutes of each other. This is when Hutchings put two and two together and came up with the idea to collect and sell old shoes in order to provide water drilling rigs to poor areas in Kenya.

In 2008, Shoeman Water Projects was born. Since then, the organization has collected more than 1.3 million pairs of shoes from donors at schools, churches and businesses.  Hutchings sells the shoes for 35 cents a pound to people who distribute them to be sold by locals.

He uses the money to buy water rigs to drill wells in towns in Africa and Haiti where there is no clean, available water source. The first rig built was at a school in Kenya that had not had water for 10 years due to a broken handle on the only water pump. Shoeman Water Projects also trains local repair staff to maintain the rigs.

According to Hutchings, shoes are almost as important as water because walking on bare feet can cause people to get worms and other parasites that can make them sick. Hutchings showed a slide show of the people he has come to know during his visits to Kenya and other countries. One photo showed a 3-year-old boy holding two jugs as he walked to a dirty watering hole to gather water for his family.

Hutchings’ project has created several sustainable micro-businesses for the local people to sell the shoes at roadside stands and maintain the wells.

The children at the meeting were inspired by Hutchings’ compassion and dedication. “I thought it was cool what he was doing, giving away shoes and fresh water,” said 8-year-old Katherine Johnson, who brought shoes collected at her school, Mount Hope Elementary.

“It was moving that he would do that when obviously most people wouldn’t even think of it,” said Elisabeth Johnson, 11. Johnson and other children at the meeting collected about 1,300 pounds of shoes to donate to the project.

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Should your intern run your social media? Maybe not.

When I was in Austin at the SXSW conference, I heard the fabulous communications expert, Peter Kim. In addition to other social media stories of a “fail,” this one was his best.  So when I saw this on his blog today, I had to replay here. It’s just too good to miss. You can follow him on Twitter, @peterkim.

Here’s what “fail fast” looks like

Earlier this year, Chrysler made a bold statement to the world, airing the Imported From Detroit commercial during Super Bowl XLV in February 2011. The ad created buzz in the ad world, political circles, and the entertainment industry, while helping drive a 191% increase in month-over-month sales of the Chrysler 200, the car featured in the ad. Unless you hate America, it’s hard not to feel proud of the United States and one of its core but beaten down industries after watching the full two-minute spot.

A month later, this tweet publishes one morning from Chrysler’s official Twitter account:

@ChryslerAutos errant tweet

Auto blog Jalopnik broke the story and here’s what transpired in rapid succession:

  • @ChryslerAuto tweets “Our apologies – our account was compromised earlier today. We are taking steps to resolve it.”
  • post to the corporate blog clarifies that an agency was responsible for the tweet and the employee responsible for the action was terminated.
  • News breaks that Chrysler fires their social agency of record.

The root cause here might have been technology failure, user error, lack of process (publishing) control, and/or temporary lapse of cultural connection.

Within the 48 hours, an iconic brand gets a black eye, an agency loses a major account, and a person gets fired: nothing good for those directly involved. So where’s all the praise for failing fast? 

The answer is there is none. This mistake could happen to anyone, but most likely to someone who much younger, and a little less experienced with your brand, your audience and your goals and objectives for your mission. So I ask you, would you let your intern run your social media campaign? Maybe not.


Topless Protestors Irk Authorities, Generate Media

From the May 7th online edition of New York magazine…

You may or may not be aware that a new revolution is heating up in eastern Ukraine, where women’s rights group Femen has been staging protests against the country’s widespread sex tourism and prostitution, inspiring fear in Ukrainian authorities.

The group was profiled by Der Spiegel this week, and the profile’s been making the rounds on the Internet. The German weekly reports “Some travel agencies offer “Romantic Tours” of eastern Ukraine. In Kiev, pimps will call the hotel rooms of foreign guests and offer to sell them “a good time with a girl.”

According to a survey, 70 percent of students in the capital have been approached by a foreigner offering them money for sex. It’s a country that even Google automatically associates with “dating agencies” and “women.”

“We understand that the root causes for many of the problems in Ukraine run very deep,” says Victor, one of Femen’s few male members. “That’s why we take the concept of prostitution one step further: The entire Ukraine is a brothel.”

Led by 26 year-old Anna Hutsol, the grassroots organization has been meeting in a dimly-lit cellar bar in the center of Kiev, earning the ire of authorities, and getting banned on Facebook for uploading “pornography.”

It might sound like fun, but it’s pretty serious, too: “Ukrainian security forces have become increasingly interested in Femen,” Spiegel reports. “Men from the Ukrainian intelligence service SBU forced their way into Anna’s apartment at night. They held ‘preventative talks’ and threatened to ‘break the arms and legs’ of the Femen chief.”

Also, they’re topless.

“Yes,” sighs Hutsol. “We’re different from classic feminists. In order to gain a voice, they had to become like men. But we want a real women’s revolution. Our naked protests are part of the fight for women’s liberation. We have the right to use our bodies as weapons. I think men like women’s breasts.”

The popularity of Spiegel‘s accompanying slideshow seems to justify their methods.

PNC Bank Risks Thousands for a $75 Payout

It's not what you say, it's what you do that matters.

If “happy customers are your best advertising,” as Andy Sernovitz writes in Word of Mouth Marketing, then it follows that unhappy customers are your worst advertising.

While this is a basic rule of marketing, it’s one that companies constantly fail to follow.  As a result of their poor customer service, or misguided policies (or both), they create mounds of negative advertising that damage their reputation, but also their bottom line.

While I typically write and teach about grassroots communications, I have the current misfortune of being a highly dissatisfied customer.  It’s become a case study for my Grassroots Communications course on poor customer service and its consequences.

Here’s a quick recap: I closed my business account at PNC Bank in December 2009.  In February 2010 PNC honored a previously authorized electronic transaction in the amount of $472.50. This caused “my account” to be overdrawn.  According to PNC, I now owed them $75 in fees and overdraft charges.  Pure profit!

Six months later, despite my best efforts, this matter remains unresolved. I’ve made dozens of phone calls, visited three branches and in May (against my better judgment), reimbursed PNC for the original transaction (less fees and penalties).  PNC’s response?  They failed to cash my check and reported me to a collection agency.

It was only until I filed a formal complaint with the US Comptroller of the Currency, and threatened a lawsuit, that PNC began to respond in earnest.  Six months later.

What’s amazing to me is how much PNC is willing to risk for a measly $75 in fees.  I’ve since shared this horror story with dozens of people, all of them potential PNC customers. Think of all the time PNC employees have spent trying to collect this money or resolve this problem of their own making.  That cost alone must run into the thousands.

PNC’s behavior stands in stark contrast to that of my current bank, Burke and Herbert.  Customer service is one of their core marketing strategies and it was on display when I recently visited their Monroe Avenue Branch.  The manager could not have been more helpful in my efforts to resolve this matter with their competitor, PNC.

And come to think of it, that’s why I moved my money there in the first place.

Boycott BP? Here’s a Better Idea…

As an organizing tactic, boycotts can be extremely effective. Think of the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott of the 1950s during the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, or the boycott against South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s. But as for this boycott against BP, I guarantee it will have little to no effect on the company.

Here’s why. Saul Alinsky was probably the greatest grassroots tactician (his 1970 book Rules for Radicals is a classic and I teach it in my graduate level communications course). When writing about tactics, Alinsky stresses the importance of using the strength of the enemy against itself. In the case of the BP boycott, the organizers are going up against that strength. Basically they’re going to be completely outgunned. BP is huge and any kind of boycott will be so diffused as to not have any economic impact on the company. Game over.

So what is BP’s strength and how can you use it against them? You have to strike where BP is weak. Their strength is their size, so attack the outer edges of their company (like the Visigoths and other “barbarians” did against the Roman empire 1500 years ago). There are thousands of businesses that are reliant on BP money and who can be “villanized” for their participation in this while fiasco (peripheral as it may be). By putting pressure on the “outer edges” of the BP universe, you can put pressure on BP itself (again, like the Romans).

For example, if I was organizing this effort, I would avoid targeting their network of service station owners (too sympathetic an audience). Instead, I would aim straight at the PR agencies and Washington, DC lobbyists (and others) that that are shilling for BP during this disaster. Everyone hates PR spinners and lobbyists, so hit them instead. How would BP’s PR agency like to have picketers show up at their office every day for a month, decrying their culpability and urging existing clients to drop them. Do you think a DC-based lobbying firm wants to have light shone on their relationship with the company? Probably not.

Surfers Ride Grassroots Wave to Victory

“I know that dude!”

When I think of surfers, Jeff Spicoli of Fast Times at Ridgemont High immediately comes to mind. But that stereotype was thrown for a loop recently when I read an article in Transworld Business, a website dedicated to board sports news and information, about the Surfrider Foundation.

Faced with the threat of a major 16-mile toll road in Southern California, the Foundation launched a successful multi-year grassroots campaign against it. Even though they were significantly outspent by the Transportation Corridor Agency, the surfers eventually prevailed thanks to a ruling by the California Coastal Commission.

At a recent panel discussion on the “Save Trestles” campaign, organizers shared their insights into the campaign. Despite little funding, the group was able to successfully mobilize a core group of 60 advocates who generated significant public support for their position.

If a bunch of gnarly surfers can do it, you can too! In the video below, Foundation spokesperson Matt McClain speaks about how Surfrider harnessed the momentum after the Trestles win, what the group learned from previous environmental battles, and how that can be applied to businesses.

Old Websites Erode Trust in What You Do

There’s a great story in the NY Times Magazine today about web sites that don’t make the grade.

Maclaren strollers

Maclaren strollers

Not because they are old or out of date, which is often a problem for many, but because they don’t reflect a current crisis a company has undergone. The writer details the Fall 2009 trouble at the British Maclaren stroller company, whose recent products have caused the severing of children’s fingertips, as well as the website foibles of Playtex and the delusional John Edwards, still aspiring to political heights. The conclusion sums it up beautifully, “Websites should update or shut down; …if your plans change, you should note the revision publicly, and manifest confidence online.” In other words, play it straight, or don’t play it all.

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