The Meat of the Story for Communicators in WeWork’s Bold Vegetarian Policy

no meat“First we eat, then we do everything else,” the preeminent American food writer M.F.K. Fisher once proclaimed. We can all agree that food is an important part of our lives. So when the CEO of one of the fastest-growing startups issues a memo proclaiming that it will no longer serve meat at corporate functions or reimburse employees on expense accounts for meaty meals, the business world took note. Stomachs growled and the haters started to hate.

In our world of communications, WeWork's meat-less edict is another example of a brand taking a stand, in this case for climate issues:

In a memo to its 6,000 employees earlier this month, Miguel McKelvey, the co-founder and chief culture officer of shared-workplace behemoth WeWork, noted: “New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact — even more than switching to a hybrid car,” he wrote, adding that WeWork could save “over 15 million animals by 2023 by eliminating meat at our events.”

I am not a vegetarian and in fact I think I was eating a turkey sandwich when I first read about this. I am impressed, however, by how this message is generally rolling out in the marketplace and I am reminded – once again – how loosely the term “PR stunt” is bandied about by the less educated among us who think any attempt to do good is laden with ulterior motives. The WeWork initiative is “just a PR stunt,” I heard someone say over the weekend at a sporting event I was attending, and in news reports there are references to this being an HR nightmare given how difficult it is to find the steak tartare on an expense report. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a public relations component to this initiative. To say there is not is like saying a commercial or advertisement did not have a marketing component to it, that a keynote speech at a major convention did not have some speechwriting behind it or that getting coverage by a major media brand did not take some media relations expertise.

Whether it’s for educational, environmental, political, local or global community needs, a growing number of brands are taking a stand and not creating ripples. Exceptions do abound for those companies taking on hot-button issues such as Hobby Lobby refusing to pay for birth control for its employees or Scotts Miracle-Gro not hiring smokers. We all know that corporate social responsibility pays dividends. In a consumer survey by Havas, 75% of consumers now expect brands to make a contribution to their quality of life, but only 40% believe they are actually doing so and consumers could care less if 74% of brands just disappeared. This same survey found that the stocks of “meaningful brands” more than double in performance against the average.

It’s unlikely that WeWork going vegetarian will disrupt its business, though it will get employees talking about climate change and environmental responsibility. That is not a bad thing, no matter your eating habits. And the thousands of companies that rent space out of WeWork’s 270 locations are not beholden to this new rule even if those same employees will be seeing WeWork in a new light, that it is at a minimum a company with values and the mettle to live by them. Anyone watching WeWork could see this coming, as it just recently instituted a zero plastic policy, taking a stand against paper cups and plans to remove leather furniture from its premises.

The PR around the WeWork story is a positive thing for communicators. Isn’t the point of PR to manage a reputation and build communications bridges between various constituencies? To say this is good PR for WeWork is different than saying this is a PR play for WeWork.

Rewind to the early days of PR, circa early 1900s, when Edward Louis Bernays and Ivy Lee defined PR as: “A management function, which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interests of an organization... followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance."

What has changed in that definition, for many brands, is the fortitude of the company’s leader or leaders to more boldly define the direction of its company without formal consensus but with a firm belief and understanding of what is best for the community (including employees). The WeWork founders, who both grew up on communes in Israel, took a stand that was personal to them and made it part of the belief system of the brand. You can take it or leave it – after all, you don’t have to work there or do business with WeWork if you are opposed to their new rules.

Communicators should play an active role in social-good initiatives especially once the big story fizzles from the headlines and the real work of implementing these changes begins to take hold.

Diane Schwartz