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Diageo Spirits Supplies Throughout The World

Tuesday, 29 March 2005 00:00

When it comes to liquor giant Diageo's global commitment to social causes and civic involvement, you might say it all comes down to a hill of beans.

 

"A major staple of the diet in the Dominican Republic is red beans, of which there are four grades. But only Grade A is permitted for food, even in a disaster. If you don't know that and send Grade B, they sit in a warehouse and don't get to the people who need them," says Guy Smith, executive vice president of corporate relations at Diageo North America, whose drinks portfolio includes Smirnoff, Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Cuervo and Beaulieu Vineyards.

Why that's a rule — or a law — Smith has no idea. "But in the middle of a disaster you don't have time to argue, because it's their country, and you've got to do it," he says. "They don't want poor quality dumped on them, whether it's a disaster or not. There's usually a good reason, but it's all about the details."

Helping Diageo tell its Grade A and Grade B beans apart is The Bridge Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that helps facilitate such humanitarian projects.

Five-year-old Diageo, consisting of several companies, including Guinness, Hueblein, Pillsbury and Burger King, has a history and policy of social responsibility and civic involvement. For some time, though, water-based projects have been important.

Prior to 9/11, unless a specific facility of the company was hit with a disaster, Diageo focused more on such corporate civic activities as providing fresh water to third-world regions like Africa or Asia.

After the first attack on the Twin Towers, Diageo sent bottled water to the devastated area. Then it established a million-dollar matching fund for emergency workers to supply "tough-book computers, the kind you can role a truck over," Smith says. "Our employees kept saying 'do more.' So we provided a special camp for 9/11 victims to help with trauma."

Following 9/11, the company decided to expand its efforts globally, launching the Diageo "Spirit of America," relief fund. In December 2001, it launched the first humanitarian airlift to Afghanistan, delivering more than 100,000 pounds of food to 800 orphans in Kabul.

"We decided we'd go from Ground Zero in the United States to Ground Zero in Afghanistan," Smith says.

He adds: "We put together a team of New York City firefighters and cops from Ground Zero, and flew in food and supplies. We also took pieces of the towers and of airplanes from Ground Zero and buried them in a special ceremony, which was very emotional and covered by the world media. It's important that we don't send a check. We take supplies to those who can benefit."

Working with such local organizations as the World Food Program, in May 2003, just after formal hostilities in Iraq had ended, Diageo transported a cargo-load of food, medicine and school supplies to Baghdad via the same team of firefighters, cops, and employees.

Invariably, Smith says, disasters happen in places with no infrastructure. For example, the island of Hispaniola was devastated in June 2004 by torrential rain, flooding and earthquakes. The death toll was in the thousands.

"The supplies had to be put onto boats in the airport at Haiti's Port Au Prince, because there was very little road structurein outlaying areas," Smith says. "Then, using mules and people's backs, we trekked 20 kilometers inland. So you need to work through complex issues."

Diageo's corporate-relations department is staffed with people who have led disaster missions to more than 70 countries for Diageo and for other organizations. "When a disaster strikes, we have a critical mass of talent skilled in working with NGOs and governments," Smith says. "If we have a business in the affected country, then we work closely with them."

Not that Diageo just goes to where it has established businesses. "Our products are not sold in Afghanistan and never will be," he adds. "The return is the feeling and the pride that our employees have in their direct ability to touch specific locations and people we do work with."

Deciding on which disaster to address became a major issue after a tsunami hit Southeast Asia on Dec. 26, 2004. "We do business in all the countriesstruck, so you have to husband
resources carefully and make choices," Smith says. "It's based on what we think we're able to do and on a case-by-case basis."

Why does Diageo do it? "It's a very effective way of being able to immediately and positively touch a community harmed either by nature or man," Smith says. "Our employees are very involved, offering everything from ideas and suggestions to their own money, which the company matches."

For instance, when the main sponsor pulled out of providing the annual 2003 Thanksgiving dinner for the Connecticut Food Bank, employees heard it on the news and asked the company to take action. The result: 12,000 turkeys delivered, feeding 72,000 people.

From a PR standpoint, the aim is to facilitate such efforts, says Rachel Rosenblatt, an executive with Westhill Partners who has worked with Diageo on such projects for several years.

"We're just a part of the team here, and it ranges from the logistical side, coordinating with The Bridge foundation, to dispatching via e-mail an hourly update of how the mission is going. People like it because they can vicariously participate," she says.

Rosenblatt also emphasizes that the aim is not to get media hits or press clips. "Sometimes we put out a press release, but we didn't, for example, on the Afghanistan trip because we took media with us. We were all over them, and we got a lot of reflected sunshine on that."

Not that they are unaware of the image aspects.

"We like to be seen as a corporation made up of families who care," Smith says. "We like to have a value system that matches our employees' value systems.

"We have consumers, distributors and retailers, many of whom contribute and give us positive feedback," he adds. "Obviously, we track the media in all our products and brands, but we don't, as a rule, count specific hits on anything."

Adds Rosenblatt, "We hope that by seeing the work that we do, other companies will get the idea in their head that this is something they can also do."

As for results, Diageo says that, since 2001, it has coordinated humanitarian missions to seven countries, hand-delivered more than 338,999 pounds of aid, and fed nearly one million people.

"I can't tell you how proud of our people I feel. I was on elevator one day and two employees I didn't know said, 'What are we going to do in Darfur?'" he says. "The day the tsunami hit, we started getting e-mails asking, 'What are we gonna do?' That's just cool."

CONTACTS: Guy Smith,
203.229.7755, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ; Rachel Rosenblatt, 212.279.4410, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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