Miller Meet: Hannah DeWit

Understanding the growing trend of Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns with Miller Ink’s Hannah DeWit.

From employee layoffs to store closures to a rise in e-commerce sales, the COVID-19 pandemic created fundamental changes in how businesses operate. One business trend that has gained momentum over the past year, and looks as if it’s here to stay, is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). CSR is the strategy of implementing policies designed to contribute to philanthropic, activist, or charitable goals, and engaging in or supporting ethically oriented practices. Helping businesses with CSR campaigns and telling these stories effectively are core competencies of the Miller Ink team. We recently sat down with Hannah DeWit, who leads Miller Ink’s social impact division, to discuss the growing adoption of CSR and its trajectory into the future.

Implementing CSR practices is a big investment for businesses. Why should businesses work to become more socially responsible, and is it worth their while?

Over the past 5 years, CSR has evolved from something that’s trendy and nice to have to more of a need-to-have where social impact is baked into the mission. More and more, consumers are starting to make purchasing decisions with their conscience. They’re more likely to research a company’s founders and employees, what the supply chain looks like, as well as how diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) factors into the structure of the company.

Many executives and owners ask why CSR? Businesses have a lot of space, power, and capacity to make a difference in ways that government cannot. Plus consumers are requiring it of them now and it’s become more of a necessity. People want to know that there are good people and good ethical decisions behind the products they buy. This used to be referred to as cause marketing, which is a way to market a product to get people to purchase. Lately, people have started to become more discerning. The public is paying careful attention to exactly how companies are delivering social impact messages, and they’re sniffing out what is real and what is a façade.

As the pandemic starts to come an end and we revert back to pre-pandemic norms, do you think public demand for CSR will be sustained, or will it diminish over time?

The push toward CSR was already gaining momentum before the pandemic started. As the pandemic forced everyone inside due to furloughs and layoffs and public safety concerns, people became hyper focused. They had the ability and the time to pay close attention, so CSR and social impact went under a magnifying glass as the pandemic progressed. Additionally, there was more of a need for it than ever before with so many businesses failing, so many people out of work, and so many people getting sick. All of this working together definitely exacerbated the need for CSR.

I don’t think that this will go away because it’ll be challenging for companies to revert when they’ve established a precedent. People are also putting a lot more pressure on CPG [consumer packaged goods] companies in terms of their supply chain, as well as now holding companies accountable for their roles in climate change.

Perhaps if the pandemic had lasted only 2 or 3 weeks, it could have been a passing thing. Even once everyone is vaccinated, there will still be major economic repercussions that will require businesses to support communities. For example, hunger is not going away once everyone is vaccinated. So I don’t think, by and large, that companies having a stake in social resources, community relations, and social impact will go away.

It’s one thing for large companies like Amazon to implement CSR programs. But what if you’re a mid-sized company that just makes ends meet? What can you do to give back to your community and help those in need in the post-pandemic economy?

For companies that want to implement a CSR program, first start internally and ask what you can do for your employees. Maybe it’s better employee engagement tactics, a company match that’s given as a benefit, or offering days of service for employees. There’s also a lot companies can do in terms of DEI regarding your hiring practices and who at your company has a voice.

If you want to go beyond employee engagement, then it’s about where your dollar will make the biggest impact. Though large national organizations might be easier for people to understand, focus on giving to non-profits that have the highest ‘touch’ and the best grassroots reach. Of course you do have to do due diligence, but with smaller non-profits, the dollars will generally go further.

There’s also a phrase I repeat a lot: “Doing everything is doing nothing.” This means that you should focus on what makes logical sense based on your company. Maybe it’s an expertise or a technology that your company could provide. You can offer resources that are physical or educational as opposed to reaching outside your core areas of focus. Just tap into what is a natural fit and look at what you have to give in terms of money, expertise, time, energy, and mentoring.

There’s often this idea that companies that publish or promote CSR campaigns only do so to garner media attention. Do you think there’s a tension between public relations and strategic communications and CSR? How can CSR efforts dovetail with wider strategic communications campaigns?

People notice when communications about companies and their social impact programs feel flashy but lack substance. The best communications strategies for your social impact campaigns start with the programs themselves. They have to be authentic, and build up a responsive partnership more than create the feeling of writing a check.

Non-profits, or whatever entity you’re supporting, need strategic partnerships.  The messaging has to prop up ‘partnership’ as much as possible as well as the successes of that partner rather than the company itself. These efforts have to come across as an investment and not a one-time thing such as “we did our thing for an awareness month of a particular issue.” It has to feel like an investment, and the message has to be clear that it’s a long-term effort.

It’s always easier to tell a story and be strategic about communicating it when the partnership is genuine and large scale. It’s about authenticity and timing and propping up the right voices. If the program is about DEI work, for example, then highlight leaders within your company who come from marginalized backgrounds. Backing up your efforts with real work is the surest way the communications will be well received.

How long have you been with Miller Ink and what is your professional background?

I’ve been with Miller Ink for over 3 years. I started when Miller Ink was a team of 5. We all sat at the same desk in a one-room office. In the last 3 years, we’ve easily tripled in size in terms of employees and amount of work.

As far as my professional background, I worked on a number of political campaigns doing community organizing and political advocacy before Miller Ink. I have degrees in political science and public policy so I’ve always done a lot of writing and research and political advocacy work. That was a really good introduction to Miller Ink because a lot of our clients have political or political adjacent messages.

What is your role within Miller Ink and what is your specialty at the company?

At Miller Ink, I serve as an Account Supervisor and lead the social impact division. I focus on our clients that have a social impact function, and generally they’re also a dual client with our sister agency called Ethos Giving. I’m also a Program Manager at Ethos Giving. Part of my portfolio is straightforward strategic communications, and a larger part is the clients that have a social impact piece and need communications support. Another part of my portfolio included clients on the Ethos Giving side that don’t need communications support but do need social impact and CSR support.

What’s your favorite thing about working at Miller Ink?

The first is that every day is a new day. It’s easy to have a job where you can expect what you’re getting every day and you have a routine, and sometimes I wish for that. But in general I think it’s great intellectually and creatively to have something new that you tackle or have to partner on or deliver every day. It’s a really good experience to get, especially early in your career, to wear multiple hats. In more bureaucratic and corporate environments, there’s a lot less room to take on responsibility, but it’s the exact opposite at Miller Ink. It’s a bit of a sink or swim mentality, but great for professional growth.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Quarantine has made me a bit of a Peloton junkie. It also sounds like a quarantine cliché, but I’ve gotten really into puzzles. Besides that I’m regularly singing, recording, and making covers. What most people don’t know about me is that I have a degree in vocal performance and sang the national anthem at my Tulane graduation in the New Orleans Superdome. I was in the music program and got a call from one of the department heads asking if my friend and I wanted to do a duet of the national anthem. He was a tenor / baritone and I’m an alto, so we harmonized the national anthem in front of 5,000 graduates and their families.

If you were a punctuation mark, which one would you be?

I am not a woman of few words. I would call myself verbose, so I feel my punctuationmark is the em dash because it’s this way of tacking on another sentence while keeping it at one sentence. While Miller Ink has taught me to be more clear, concise, and compelling in my writing, I still use the em dash.

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