When AT&T [T] revealed last week that it would be giving its 127,000 employees a paid day off for community-service projects, it not only set a precendent but strengthened its relationship with its employees and garnered positive media exposure. "It makes our people feel like they're working for a progressive company," said Burke Stinson, a spokesman for AT&T, New York. "We're a company that surveys our people to death and it has recently become apparent that so many people are absorbed in their work and their family lives that they don't have time for volunteer work." The AT&T decision allows employees to set up on their own, or through the corporation's outreach efforts, a day spent volunteering for any kind of cause or not-for-profit organization they select. Workers will not be required to prove that they acted as volunteers and will only have to clear their day or hours of choice, according to Virginia Gold, a spokeswoman for AT&T. Activities will range from a group of workers who will go to a New York high school to overhaul computers for Internet access to staffers who will work in soup kitchens or help the handicapped. Since word got out about AT&T's Nov. 21 launch of "AT&T Cares" the telecommunications company has received publicity in every major market, according to Stinson. There have been stories by the Associated Press, The Washington Post [WPO] and CBS [1297Q], to name a few. And it's publicity that continues to turn its fair share of heads as AT&T employees set a course to dole out 1 million volunteer hours and labor priced at an estimated $20 million (based on the average AT&T daily salary of $160), said Stinson. "This is the first time a company as big as AT&T has done something this sweeping. And it's not just an image-polishing move -- you have to look at what it also does for AT&T's workforce and what it will probably do for the bottomline," said Barbara Lohman, a spokesperson wih The Points of Light Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit organization focused on volunteerism as a way to remedy social problems. "Studies about brand loyalty show that consumers are making buying decisions based on corporate character," Lohman added. As a way to show its commitment to its employees, AT&T first informed all staff nationwide of the program, and then made a public announcement, albeit a low-key one. "We agreed to do this in the fall and at that time there were suggestions to issue a press release," recalled Stinson. "But I didn't want it to look like we were bragging." Stinson, instead, contacted human-interest (not business) reporters at national publications --including the New York Times [NYT/A], National Public Radio, U.S. News and World Report, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, ABC [2367Z] and the Christian Science Monitor. But despite Stinson's decision not to issue a widely distributed press release, his call is being seen, within the PR community, as a smart business strategy. Instead of taking the chance that a journalist might discard a press release, Stinson made several well-placed calls to journalists he has dealt with in the past. And Stinson said that in addition to the decision being seen as an image booster, what AT&T is finding out is that it has bolstered its internal communications. That, in turn, will impact how people view the 111-year-old company. "I've heard employees speaking about it in the cafeteria and I believe we have hit a responsive chord," Stinson added. "We're finding that in corporate America, in the '90s, people feel they are working longer and harder and that they are struggling to balance work and family and don't know how to deal with how pinched for time they are." "This is just the beginning of this trend (toward company-sponsored employee volunteerism)," said Gerald Celente, director and founder of the Reinbeck, New York-based Trends Research Institute. "There is a movement toward community involvement because 48 million people (up from 10.8 million in 1995) are working in their homes today and...they're becoming more involved with their communities and more concerned about what's going on." "We've seen a recent movement in companies trying to find ways to support volunteerism," agreed Shilpi Somaya, manager of business and community programs for the Business for Social Responsibility, a San Francisco-based, non-profit organization. (Burke Stinson, 212/841-4652; Virginia Gold, 212/387-5338; Barbara Lohman, 202/223-9186; Gerald Celente, 914/876-6700; Shilpi Somaya, 415/865-2506)

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