In 2016 I discovered the narcissism of virtue-signalling CEOs willing to piggyback on the issue of homelessness for company publicity.
Right after the 2016 referendum, I attended a local tech conference.
There was a rotating panel discussion where the entire room was invited to participate in a discourse on technology and Brexit.
There were four or five seats on the stage and there was supposed to be a “churn” of participants, where those with an opinion or concern would jump into any seat that became available, like players in a lively parlour game.
The CEO from one of the companies sponsoring the event occupied a chair but never moved the entire evening.
In fact, he hijacked the discussion to weigh in with a long-winded monologue on Jeremy Corbyn, who he doesn’t like.
At the time, Corybn faced challenges from within his ranks and refused to step down as Labour leader. How ironic.
The organiser of the event reminded us to “keep things moving” but this went unheeded by the CEO.
It’s only my opinion – and this person won’t be identified – but his nauseating sense of self-importance irked me to the point I considered him narcissistic.
Other event attendees actually bought it up among themselves using a Twitter hashtag the event was using. I wasn’t alone in my silent criticism.
When I looked him up on Twitter and saw what he was posting to his media timeline, my prejudices were confirmed.
Rough Sleeping as a Public Relations Stunt
An organisation he’d been tweeting about (with smartphone selfies) was called CEO Sleepout.
Scrolling through his smug photos, I witnessed what only be referred to as cheap social media moments borne of simulated UK street poverty.
In other words, he’d spent a night sleeping on the street of a city to raise awareness (and apparently money) for homelessness.
In the photos, multiple sleeping bags were carefully laid out in what could be described as a “safe zone” with CEO Sleepout branded beanie hats and branded fleeces, plus bottled water should the poor guys and gals get thirsty during the cold night.
Not a single homeless person was in sight.
But our CEO (I’ll call him Nathan, as in Nathan Barley) had posted a photo of himself “warming up” (his words) for his city sleepout, with a nice Starbucks coffee.
Transparent Corporate Virtue Signalling
Why anyone would want to raise money for a charity by agreeing to be a rough sleeper under the glare of cameras in a cordoned off area is beyond me.
Among the security personnel and banners advertising the event, it seems the participants see it as a sort of networking opportunity.
Something to add to the LinkedIn intro, right? Bit of mutual back-slapping?
Visit the CEO Sleepout website and it tells you who is taking part in the next event, as though it’s important we know who these individuals are.
These people have the same mindsets as those who raise awareness for one thing or another by having their head shaved. Or doing ice bucket challenge.
Those on the streets or sofa surfing do not give a shit about companies and their social media accounts.
After my various run-ins with charities claiming to be doing good, I look down on CEO Sleepout and wonder just how much of the money raised actually makes a difference.
If business people really want to help those on the fringes and in the midst of destitution, buy them coffee, sandwiches and clean clothes. Put them up in a hotel room for a few nights or help them find work.
Don’t engage in what another website has already neatly summarised as poverty porn.
Choose Business Sponsors and Partners Carefully
Another reason I bring this up is that I’m the process of co-organising a technology event locally.
Part of the task is finding a sponsor. We want someone on board with the principles of open-source and who can contribute to a social club for a well-known website platform in the spirit in which it was intended.
Somebody filling their Twitter timeline with photos safely inserting themselves into a tragic and traumatic narrative in full view of the general public is to be avoided.
The problem with event sponsors is that once they’ve paid money to help run the event, they think they’ve bought themselves a certain amount of power.
The organisers become indebted and obligated. This is a compromise. It opens the floodgates to hidden agendas.
Next time you pull out your camera to take a selfie in the context of business PR, think twice. There’s often a backlash that isn’t eagerly voiced at the time.