Can a Giant Telecom Company Tell a Social Story?

There is no doubt that digital skills and internet access are necessary for acquiring enough education to exit the poverty cycle. In an ideal world, everybody would have equal access to the digital sphere.

Unfortunately, the digital divide between those who are connected (the haves) and those who are left behind (the have-nots) is exceptionally deep. For example, the Pew Research Institute reported that the majority of lower-income Americans do not own a tablet.

Roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone, and nearly half don’t have home broadband services or a personal computer. By comparison, many of these devices are nearly ubiquitous among adults from households earning $100,000 or more a year.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Sprint, the giant telecom company, decided in 2016 to join the battle to close this gap and minimize the existing digital gap, by opening a window to knowledge.

The Sprint Foundation announced that it would give one million digital tablets and laptops to low-income high school students, including free wireless broadband access, for up to four years of high school. The initiative, called The 1Million Project, is intended to help low-income high school students complete their homework more easily, improve their reading skills, expand their intellectual curiosity, and help them find jobs.

So far, this project sounds like a well-planned, spot-on, and creative program, designed to direct the aid exactly where it’s needed: helping high-school students succeed in their education. What could go wrong?

Surprisingly, Sprint’s press release announcing its charitable initiative to the public received some negative media coverage. This was the first announcement on the project, released in October 2016 to the media. It was picked up by national media and represented an excellent opportunity to communicate Sprint’s message to the general public.

However, it seems something was lost in translating Sprint’s philanthropic message to the public.

It is interesting to evaluate this case for two reasons.

First, the launch received rather minimal coverage, especially for a large-scale national initiative involving a giant telecom company, the US administration, and important topics of education and digital literacy.

Minimal media coverage is always a challenge when launching a new campaign. It is unclear if Sprint aspired or planned for broader coverage. However, it is worth noting that for a company on Sprint’s scale, getting little coverage is an unusual result.

Second, the coverage of the project did get mostly negative. The media criticized Sprint’s donation as a business decision designed to profit from a new captive audience: underprivileged high-school students and their families. For example, in October 2016, The New York Times published a story about the initiative under this headline:

Tech Companies Expect Free High-Speed Internet for Poorer Americans to Pay Off Later

The Christian Science Monitor made it even more explicit:

Sprint’s 1 Million Project: Philanthropy or Smart Marketing?

Both stories create a similar context for this initiative: they link Sprint’s donation to business-oriented profit and focus on how Sprint will benefit from giving away these products and services. Sprint’s philanthropy is covered as a marketing trick, designed to generate profit for the telecommunication giant. In other words, the media asks, is philanthropy just another loophole for Sprint to make more money?

In other words, the media asks, is philanthropy just another loophole for Sprint to make more money?

By framing Sprint’s philanthropy as a marketing initiative, the media narrative emphasized how the large corporation was allegedly trying to make a profit from low-income families.

This frame diminished Sprint’s good deed and left readers with a bitter taste in their mouths. At the same time, it questioned Sprint’s motives, tainting its corporate responsibility and the brand’s integrity. Instead, the media should have focused on Sprint’s effort to fight the digital divide and examine the project’s efficacy and merit.

Let’s put it in the simplest terms: giving away one million tablets and laptops and the internet access to use them is a charitable deed. After acknowledging that deed, the media can engage in a fruitful discussion about the effectiveness of Sprint’s philanthropy. For example, how effective are these devices without a support system to monitor their use and follow these students to graduation?

More broadly, how should we evaluate the social responsibility of corporate firms that eventually want to make a profit? These discussions are important and essential to understand the broader context of corporate responsibility, and to encourage more companies to give effectively.

Communicating Your Charitable Impact

Learning from Sprint’s experience, here are some guidelines to consider when planning the launch of a charitable initiative:

1. Choose the Right Media Outlet

The first step is to choose in advance the best and most relevant media outlet for your cause. Whether you are planning a national or local initiative, choosing the right media outlet can make an enormous difference in targeting the right audience and establishing the appropriate context for your story.

For example, a national media outlet will cover the story from a different angle than a local one, focusing on broader aspects of the story and attributing different meanings to your charitable activity. Likewise, financial or politically-oriented media outlets will cover the same story using different frames. It is best to choose the media outlet that you think will best interact with your story, values, and target audience.

2. Choose the Right Frame

Every story, especially a charitable one, can be told from multiple angles. Each narrative can emphasize a different focal point and attribute different meanings to the story.

The best frame, in this case, would promote Sprint’s narrative of direct and immediate help for underprivileged students. However, both the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor published this story in their technology sections and used a technological narrative to tell Sprint’s story. By doing so, they emphasized Sprint’s marketing & business plan and undermined its social impact.

3. Choose the Right Journalist

The key to choosing the right journalist to cover your cause is to look for journalists that specialize in the same field as your cause, but not necessarily in your business area. For example, if your technology business introduces a CSR initiative in education or health, try working with media specialists in one of those two fields.

Journalists who cover social issues in general, or who specialize in your specific area of activity, can craft a more comprehensive story and add relevant context, data, and analysis to support your argument because they are familiar with the field. They can also highlight the relevant aspects of your initiative’s social impact. This will create a more grounded assessment of its potential and increase your project’s public legitimacy.

Expert journalists are invaluable partners in communicating your social story. Not only are they the gatekeepers to media coverage, but they could also be important sources of knowledge about social change, your activity’s context, and how it’s being received by the public.

In this case, we can’t tell for sure whether Sprint worked with specific journalists who specialize in education and digital literacy. However, Sprint’s negative coverage demonstrates how technology-oriented journalists can drastically change a story about education and digital literacy.

4. Choose the Right Name

The project’s name is important because it signals the business’s vision and intentions. When an initiative’s name is defined and prominent, it could trigger various kinds of responses from different audiences, which could easily turn into criticism, as happened in Sprint’s case.

Sprint named its initiative “The 1Million Project” to highlight a large number of devices donated. One million sounds like a large number, demonstrating a large donation. But this name is tricky, for two main reasons.

First, size is only relative. Using an abstract number without context detaches the size of Sprint’s donation from its meaning, and opens it up to the audiences’ interpretations. Usually when a number is named in a transaction, even a donation, it serves as the beginning of a negotiation.

As such, one million tablets and laptops seem like only a portion of what the wealthy company can donate. Simply put, it triggers murmurs that ‘they could do more.’

Second, numbers are abstract and have no meaning without a context to explain their significance. How can we appreciate a donation if it is unclear how it would help? For instance, are one million tablets and laptops enough? What effects can they achieve? Numbers are relevant to social change only if they can demonstrate critical and accurate data about the issue. We can’t evaluate the project just by clinging to a number that seems large in terms of the average consumer’s household tablet use.

Good intentions are not the right focus here, because intentions don’t amount to much. Instead, Sprint should be very practical about what the digital gap is and what is needed to fight it, what their plan is, what is being done with the resources available, and who will be held accountable for all of it. That will help them present the actual steps taken to make this donation matter and effective, thus showing the actual benefits these donations will bring to real students. Without it, it just a fairy tale story that easily attracts criticism.

What could Sprint do differently?

The “homework gap” is a common term to describe the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don’t. Pew Research reports that almost 5 million school-age children don’t have a broadband internet connection at home, with low-income households accounting for a disproportionate share. This data can facilitate research on the project to make sure it delivers its full potential.

To make this project even more appealing, Sprint could have launched a pilot program and distributed tablets to a defined group of students. Within this pilot, students and teachers could share their experiences and reflections on the use of the tablets. Technology and education researchers could direct this pilot and provide a professional, scientific, and objective umbrella.

If successful, this pilot could be used as a perfect example for the entire project’s effectiveness. This could be the starting point of a much bigger discussion about the importance of tablets to increase low-income students’ potential success.

The launch press release could be used to talk about the pilot directly, including the lessons that Sprint learned and how it applied them to the larger donation.

Solving acute social problems is much more complicated than the media’s simple frame of profit disguised as giving. Solving the digital divide will require the participation of multiple actors from the governmental, corporate, and non-profit sectors. All of them are important and needed, even large telecommunications corporations. After all, cooperation is what communication is all about.

In this case, Sprint should have owned this discussion and led it: they are a large telecommunications company committed to social change in education — not just by distributing devices, but by working with communities to achieve real change.