There is no question that tribal casinos provide a significant positive net benefit to its employees, the local community, businesses, and other government agencies. The positive impacts, though, are not shared with casino guests who wonder where the money goes. In a study released in 2016 in UNLV Gaming Research and Review Journal, Identifying Opportunities to Inform and Inspire: Tribal Casino Employee Perceptions of Tribal Self Sufficiency and Philanthropy, by Sandra Sun-Ah Ponting, Jess Ponting, and Katherine Spilde supported by the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming at San Diego State University presents evidence that employees of tribal gaming enterprises find pride in sharing tribal government self-sufficiency, community engagement activities, and other philanthropic actives with casino guests. Why have we, as casino marketing professionals in Indian Gaming, not provided the narrative to our team members regarding the work we do to advance our host communities, the interests of Indian Country, and the charitable contributions we make? In 2018, I returned to the office after attending one of my many have-to-attend conferences throughout the country and marveled at the content of a conversation that I had with another attendee after one of the sessions.
The conversation was with a tribal casino operator who donated a large sum of money to alleviate the negative effects of a local catastrophe that impacted tribal members, the local community, and the regional economy. I questioned why more people did not know about the community involvement of the Tribe.
"That’s not why we do it,” was the reply.
I was not as surprised as I should have been because I had experienced something very similar with my tribe. Humbleness is one of the many cultural traits shared by tribal nations across the country. Tribal people are not boastful and prefer to help those around them from a distance. Tribes get directly involved with many causes but choose to fly as low under the preverbal radar as possible. Modesty is a key defining cultural characteristic of tribal people.
I began my career at my tribe’s casino hotel, Cypress Bayou Casino Hotel, as a graphic artist after spending a few years in non-profit and media. I was astounded that there were no advertising or public relations departments at the property. I stepped up and developed a comprehensive public relations and advertising program for the property. The first issue that I had to tackle was a big one – public perception. Specifically, I had to combat the public perception that the Tribe only “takes care” of its members and contributes very little to the region.
I took on the challenge of public perception. We needed to start talking about tribal initiatives as they relate to the overall region. I held the first of many press conferences, developed media kits, created talking points for executive leadership, publicized the activities through all paid media, performed on-air interviews, developed relationships with the media outlets in the region, inserted events that we were a part of in our monthly casino and tribal direct mail campaigns. Truth is, I pushed some out of their comfort zones. I started to work closely with my tribal council and executive casino leadership. I asked a multitude of questions. However, the most important question was,
"How can we expect our team members to talk positively about the Tribe and tribal community involvement if many on the casino leadership team had limited information and did not talk about it?"
I began to structure different communication strategies based on specific stakeholder groups. I worked hard to involve senior leadership with the many causes that we support as a Tribe. For example, if we sponsored a charitable banquet, we had a table; silent auction, we were there interacting with community members, and the list goes on. The senior leaders began to realize that we do have a real impact on the region. And, the positive impact was important. Tribal and casino leadership was sold on the idea - we had to continue to do it. GREAT! I had the buy-in from executive leadership and the green light to openly talk about community relations. Now, I needed our good to be great. I began to search for ideas and efforts to amplify the work we were doing. Can, will, does, or should our charitable efforts make a positive impact on our bottom line? How will we utilize our team members to speak positively on our behalf?
There are positive links between corporate social responsibility activities and firm profitability with an ever-increasing number of stakeholders involved – from host communities to team members to guests. The definition of what constitutes CSR is a bit of a problem as well as what constitutes a positive impact on society. Tribal casino operators have invested their profits from gaming, either voluntarily or voluntold through compacts with the state, to create and fund problem gaming programs. These programs are generally considered one of the only worthy philanthropic causes to mitigate the perceived dark side of gaming operations. Several gaming compacts forced the development of various Tribal foundations to eradicate or mitigate the perceived social damage caused by gaming – a few of these tribes are limited in the ability to fund other tribes or tribal members through their foundations. In my opinion, the overreach by some of these agreements is egregious and is one of the deciding factors of why many tribes do not want to talk about their philanthropic efforts. A fair solution to the problem is to create a charitable foundation or set of standards upon which to decide which donation requests will receive funding. We, as tribal people, want to give to everyone and help in any way that we can; we are giving in nature, even when we do not have much to give. It is a fantastic problem to have, but unfortunately, there are far too many willing to take advantage of our inherent giving nature.
A comprehensive public relations campaign, Cypress Bayou Cares, was created to identify charitable and volunteer opportunities in the community, act as a gatekeeper of what will be funded with clear guidelines and involves team members to amplify our efforts. The guidelines are simple and can be found online at CypressBayou.com. Under current regulatory requirements, there are barriers for gaming establishments in Louisiana to donate directly to education, political causes, and much more. The regulations provided guidelines for involvement, which meant that the causes we supported had to directly impact the local community. Our casino market consists principally of locals; therefore, it is even more important that we sponsor local events and get involved with organizations that impact the communities in which our guests live, work, and play.
Managing public perception can be difficult, but it is a necessary business management activity. Here is where it impacts the bottom line: these perceptions have the power to impact the longevity of tribal government gaming as a permanent policy embedded in the tribal-federal relationship (Ponting, Ponting, & Splide, 2016). Tribal communities have reinvigorated pride, economic, and cultural initiatives as well as increased tribal self-sufficiency as a result of gaming. There is a positive link between tribal gaming and the stakeholders involved. Communities are thriving, tax bases have grown, employee benefits are fantastic, and tribes care about the communities in which they do business. Those are facts. Most importantly, philanthropic activities have a hugely beneficial effect on the surrounding community and since many tribal casinos are located in economically depressed areas it is even more important to make strategic philanthropic investments. I propose that we think of charitable giving as a form of corporate social responsibility.
Say tuned for Part II...
Ponting, S. S.-A., Ponting, J., & Spilde, K. (2016). Identifying Opportunities to Inform and Inspire: Tribal Casino Employee Perceptions of Tribal Self Sufficiency and Philanthropy. UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal, 20(2), 85–103.