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Ask a Prof: Are partnerships between Bell and mental health organizations superficial?

Each January, telecom giant Bell Canada promotes #BellLetsTalk, a social media campaign aiming to start conversations about mental illness. Since 2010, Bell has raised $80 million for mental health initiatives in Canada. For every phone call and text on Bell networks, and every hashtag, Bell donates 5¢ to mental health organizations and research.

To find out more about how the #BellLetsTalk campaign balances between activism and consumerism, we spoke with Professor Jim Swaffield. Swaffield is teaching four 400-level courses this semester in marketing communications, international marketing, and strategic marketing and management at the Alberta School of Business. He also holds a Ph.D. in psychology.

The Gateway: Could you start by talking about why corporations choose to support social or health-related causes?

Swaffield: We’re sort of in a social marketing era where there’s a philosophy that corporations need to be better corporate citizens. The causes Bell is supporting involve using the telephone or the internet to connect with people that may be having mental health problems. I think it’s a natural fit for a company like Bell because on one side they’re making donations to mental health organizations, which is wonderful. On the other side, they’re telling people who aren’t doing so well to reach out to others. My own feeling is it’s good for business. Is it really effective in the long run? I think that remains to be seen. If you truly believe in a social cause, it shouldn’t just be about the profit; it’s about doing what’s right for Canadians.

How does the campaign appeal to consumers?

From a business perspective, in the end it’s a strategy. They may not admit this, but it’s a strategy to increase their stock value of their shares. I think the other thing is trying to create greater understanding and acceptance for people with mental health issues. It’s kind of like water dripping on marble — it can wear it away, but it takes a long time. It’s probably a good starting point to have a campaign like that.

There was an article about a woman who worked for Bell and was fired after seeking mental health leave. I wonder about the company’s real commitment to helping those who are mentally ill.

I think that in these corporations, the CEOs report to shareholders. At the end of the day, they’re going to manage their companies to be profitable. If they don’t do that then they’re not going to be around in the future. At the core of the executives, I don’t really think they’re overly concerned about mental health — I think they’re concerned with profitability. That being said, I’m glad Bell is doing that and giving money to organizations.

The other thing is there is a philosophical debate about whether it’s really the role of the organization to participate in those activities. I’m glad they put money towards these things, but is it really their responsibility to do so? That’s a debatable question.

Would you say that the partnerships between Bell and mental health organizations are superficial?

There’s a saying that real charity isn’t tax deductible. They certainly want to be seen giving one of those big novelty cheques to show how much they’re donating to these organizations. I think it’s a business strategy and a lot of organizations sponsor activities like this with questionable return on their investment. I think a lot of the relationships are somewhat superficial, but if I’m on the receiving end, I don’t really care — just give me the money so I can run my organization.

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