Tree Shaker :: MediaVision USA

26 December

Cooke & Seal: A Change Then and Now

Seal and Cooke: A Change is Gonna Come

Some of you are old enough to remember this: almost 50 years ago when Sam Cooke recorded this song, it quickly became one of the unofficial anthems of the civil and human rights movement—from South Carolina to South Africa, blasting from barber shops, beauty salons, night clubs, and villages. “A Change Is Gonna Come” captured the pervasive sense of anticipation and hope in 1963—the year Seal moved from London to the States–injecting a fresh shot of dogged inspiration and sound into the DNA of the movement.

It was released under a different label following Cooke’s death in 1964, broadcasting his haunting siren around the world again. More recently, Seal released his tribute, signaling the mood for change and a visceral anticipation for a new day, offering another uncanny connection with a threshold of time. Here’s to a song that carries our new hope and anticipation as January 2009 lumbers into town. It’s about **** time, but still sweet in its imminent arrival.

20 November

Verizon and the Handout Brand: Brother Can You Spare A Dime?

When The Verizon Foundation recently announced its award of $2.2 million for an after school program to the National Council of La Raza and the National Urban League, it provided standard fare for the typical corporate press release.

Congratulatory praise for Verizon and its signature educational initiative, Verizon benefits in the eyes of its customers, investors, and media from associating its brand with those of the National Urban League and National Council of La Raza, worth far more in free media and advertising than the grant. The Urban League and La Raza walk away with a piddling $2.2 million in cash or educational resources.

As the philanthropic arm for Verizon Communications, the foundation’s business model did not require positive publicity as much as its corporate parent.

Thousands of corporations use foundation entities to polish their corporate brands, which too often lobby —far more well-financed and influential operations than their philanthropic arms—- against the very public policies that would benefit their nonprofit charitable recipients.

It is hardly a secret that Verizon has joined other cable and phone companies that aggressively lobby against Net Neutrality, the pending legislation that would insure the continuation of an accessible, level, and affordable playing field for all Internet users (including those children in after school programs, especially in low-income communities). For two iconic national organizations in both the African American and Hispanic communities, the $2.2 million award is striking in its miniaturized form. Publicizing this award would appear to be more of a PR deficit than an asset. It draws attention to disparity in diverse communities and organizations, and to corporations who buy good will on the cheap while spending many more millions lobbying against the interest of those organizations— and customers to which they are bonded.

But what heartless creature could be against $2.2 million for after-school education for children? No one –if the bar is set so low.

To be fair, The Verizon Foundation has an impressive philanthropic track record. It awarded about $10.4 million last year to nonprofit groups in New York State alone, with $76.4 million to nonprofits nationwide. Yet the impact of these dollars, spread in relatively small amounts across a vast terrain of overtaxed organizations, is minimal.

Both corporations and nonprofit organizations should move away from the old model of charitable parent and needy recipient and adopt a new model of co-branding alliances. Co-branding offers opportunity for equitable business relationships of mutual benefit, discarding the paternalism of parent giving to needy recipient.

Unless you are ValuJet or Enron, all brands have value. We accept this about corporations and other private entities. It is long overdue to accept the same about nonprofits with solid reputations, credibility, identity - and constituencies that are existing or potentially new customers.

Bigger outcomes are possible with real partnerships or alliances that deploy the brand power of both corporate and nonprofit entities, building strategic relationships based on mutual business interests.

Instead of only using their philanthropic arms, corporations could partner with compatible nonprofits, and co-brand in corporate advertising, merchandise, customer services, and philanthropy that would add robust value to corporate brands and provide significantly more financial resources to nonprofits. But that means adopting a business strategy that absorbs philanthropic investments along with other operational expenses and investments. These strategic business relationships offer unlimited potential, particularly during a growing recession and other meltdowns in the economy when customers will gravitate and bond long-term with companies that show leadership in business and community.

For that to happen, however, a different mind set and strategic approach are imperative. Both sectors could gain extraordinary value if they retire the charitable giving model, and embrace a strategic alliance model where each party brings brand value to the table. Messag: business, not charity.

22 September

The Language of Race in the “Post-Racial” Campaign

This morning’s New York Times carried a stunning piece by editorial writer Brent Staples, the words blasting into my eyes like tiny pieces of burning glass.  Staples focused on how race–or should I say coded racism–has been injected into this year’s presidential campaign.  But before that, he set table with historical evidence of the smoking gun connection between then and now.

In the South Carolina of the 1950s, the time and space where I grew up, African Americans endured near-death experiences on a daily basis throughout the Deep South. As Staples points out today, black people could be not only “beaten and killed for seeking the right to vote” but also for the mere pedestrian act of “talking back to the wrong white man or failing to give way on the sidewalk.” Further, as Staples informed his readers, black people who were so brazen as to violate these and other soul-killing proscriptions could be designated as “uppity niggers.” 

I remember my grandfather “pulling over to the side,” to give way to white people when he would take me into town. A child not knowing any better, I refused, and so had to be severely and publicly reprimanded and then forced to do so. Otherwise, my experience would not have been near-death, it simply would have been death.

I also remember that in many parts of the South black men were not allowed to wear white shirts except on Sundays. Otherwise, they  would be stopped and interrogated not only by the official law enforcement, but ordinary white male citizens. “You better be preaching a funeral today,” they would say to my father and uncles.

In fact, Staples brought more ugly memories back to me about “uppity” black people who own nicer homes, cars, farms, or more successful businesses. If you were not an undertaker, black people could be putting their lives at risk for owning a Cadillac.

As Staples points out, these social transgressions not only provoked social repression but often they unleashed wholesale violence. “Race-based wealth envy,” he wrote, “was a common trigger for burnings, lynchings and cataclysmic episodes like the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which a white mob nearly eradicated the prosperous black community of Greenwood.” To be sure, similar horrors happened in other states at different times.

Staples captures the base of essence of that time and experience: “Forms of eloquence and assertiveness that were viewed as laudable among whites were seen as positively mutinous when practiced by people of color.” Deeper still, he wrote, “black men and women who looked white people squarely in the eye–and argued with them about things that mattered” were declared an intolerable, subversive threat and persecuted.”

I know this to be true because even in my little farming community, many black men had to leave their families and homes in the dark of night and make way North for the defiance of “looking squarely in the eye” of a quasi-authority figure in the county.

But I digress. Staples has set his table, and now presents Representative Lynn Westmoreland, the Georgia Republican who described Obama as “uppity” and refused to retract. Instead, the Congressman insists that there is no racial meaning in the term, citing the dictionary as his sourced authority. The next offering comes from Representative Geoff Davis, Kentucky Republican, whose stated view of Obama is “That boy’s finger does not need to be on the button.”

The McCain campaign has run an ad accusing Obama of being “disrespectful” to Sarah Palin.  Evidence? Examples?

None. None are needed.  The Republican playbook rules.  Simply asserting a big lie with the sordid language of coded racism makes it immune to the need for reasoning.

It’s painfully ironic that Barack Obama, of all people, should be the target of this vicious propaganda. After all, Obama has been forceful in declaring that there is no Black America or White America, only a United States of America. Obama’s brand is anchored to the myth of an American post-racial society which virtually declares the end of racism. 

All candidates operate in an alternate universe. If that convinces you that Obama is simply having to endure what the other guy endures, just add color.


25 June

The Power of Image

Hundreds of thousands of people risked their lives as foot soldiers in the civil rights movement. Thousands were jailed, beaten, shot, and some were killed.

Iconic young leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Anne Braden, Julian Bond, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, and legions of other lesser known leaders fueled the spirits of thousands to challenge state-sanctioned terror that blanketed the South until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed into law, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Extraordinary leadership and fearless grassroots citizens drove the issue of civil rights into living rooms across America, the halls of Congress, and the White House. But the tipping point in the political climate of 1964 came from a steady stream of photographic and television images.

Searing images of police dogs attacking defenseless children, state troopers on horses trampling and beating nonviolent demonstrators, greyhound buses billowing smoke from firebombing, four little girls killed by a bomb while attending church, and many other images of horror and courage told a powerful story for America and the world.

The civil rights leaders of that era were not professionals in “staging,” but photojournalists, television camera crews, and amateur photographers understood the power of images.

To be sure, “staging” was unnecessary; it was rooted in the authenticity of the events themselves.

The eloquent words and actions of the civil rights soldiers spoke for themselves in real time, but the images captured for eternity an unfolding drama of human dignity in the face of terror and racism.

Those ghosts from the past have returned. The High Museum in Atlanta (,1,1,5,1) has open a long overdue exhibit, “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956-1968,” and those photographs still display the power of image for transformation. The New York Times also has a brief sampling and slide show of the exhibit at

Fast forward to May 2003 for another exquisite illustration of the power of image: President George W. Bush, all dressed up in a pilot suit, standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a backdrop banner declaring the invasion of Iraq, “Mission Accomplished.” Perfect staging. A flawless image of a tagline that conveyed the intended message and cemented public support for the war.

But, as we now know, after thousands of deaths and injuries, and billions of dollars in lost treasure, that hasn’t worked out so well. Authenticity might be key here–you think? Loss of credibility can reduce the most powerful image to a ridiculous caricature.

The civil rights movement painted the canvas of history with truth and courage. The Bush White House skillfully used modern tools of marketing and staging, but will be remembered as a house of propaganda where the gimmicks of deception were deployed to smother the truth.

As it turns out, Conventional Wisdom which promises you can sell anything is no longer conventional or wise.