Larry King held a 2-hour telethon on June 21 to raise funds for those impacted by the BP oil spill – Disaster in the Gulf: How You Can Help.

Maybe I’m missing something, but… am I the only one who doesn’t understand this?

The spill was caused by a commercial entity that the universe agrees is 100% responsible, the U.S. government has vowed to hold said entity to its promise of paying for the clean-up and for losses incurred by all affected parties, and BP itself has agreed to do same.

Now I’m not saying that BP will or won’t actually do this (or that its version of reimbursement would match yours or mine), but this telethon isn’t saying “We know BP’s 100% responsible, but we don’t believe it’ll come through so we’re doing this just in case” – it’s just your regular old telethon to raise money.

But why? Why are we raising money? Why are television watchers – many of whom cannot afford to donate – being asked to donate in the first place? Larry King said that “the point of this effort is to get immediate relief to the people and wildlife who are in urgent need,” and that “the telethon’s proceeds go directly to relief organizations.” Why isn’t BP being forced to provide “immediate relief?”

I worry that, in a perverse way, this kind of activity makes us immune – numb – to disaster and tragedy. Something happens? No need to look too closely: let’s just raise money. Let’s get a bunch of celebrities to look soulfully into the camera and ask for cash, while we view a dying, oil-blackened bird in split screen. I worry that this makes Americans feel as though we’re doing something – we sent in our $20 bucks, therefore we are good people who care and we can move on.

Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, Mariah Carey and Jeremy Piven take donations at the Gulf telethon

But can we? Are we doing any of the heavy lifting that could actually change anything, or help people? Those impacted by Hurricane Katrina are still suffering and basic infrastructure remains thin in New Orleans: where are we? Where is the outrage about how deepwater drilling continues as we speak, with no specific plan for the industry to create tools that will help it avert and address disasters in the future? Where is the outrage that BP is trying to block journalists’ access to the beaches, or skimmer boats from other countries? Why is it acceptable that individuals appear to be picking up the slack for a global corporation? These should be the items we’re all talking about, not what Justin Bieber has to say over a cheesy soundtrack.

And I worry, too, about the effect on an organization’s sense of responsibility. How does this phenomenon impact a company’s commitment to building trust in the marketplace? If BP’s actions are acceptable – and we make them acceptable by dialing an 800 number flashing on the screen and putting $10 on our credit cards – why wouldn’t a company conclude that it will not be held 100% accountable for its actions? Whether willfully or passively, why wouldn’t an organization do the minimum, or something close to it, and wait for us to blunt or even wash away its responsibility?

It’s easy to pound one’s chest and demand that “those responsible” do more, but I would suggest that, by our own actions, we may be empowering these same responsible parties to do less. There’s no guidebook that tells an organization exactly what reputable and trustworthy behavior is – society does that. Stakeholders – like you, me and Larry King – do that.

Where do you want to set the bar?

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A version of this post also appears on http://reputationgarage.com.

 

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