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Q&A: How Should Companies Engage in Austin?

Senior Vice President Katherine McLane, an expert in civic engagement and corporate social responsibility, heads LEVICK’s Austin office. She discusses “What’s Next?” for companies such as Apple that are moving to, or contemplating a move to, or increasing their presence in, the place that’s affectionately known as “the blueberry in the tomato soup.”

Katherine, what’s meant by “blueberry in the tomato soup” and how should companies factor that into their Austin engagement strategies?

It means that Austin is an oasis of progressive “blue” thinking in an otherwise conservative or “red” state. Austin is like no other place in Texas and no other place in the country. Our proud motto is “Keep Austin Weird.” And even our more conservative inhabitants—like me—never want Austin to lose its peculiar character. Companies ignore those peculiarities at their own peril. Civic engagement is something that Austin residents take very seriously. They expect companies with a big presence in Austin to play a progressive and philanthropic role in the community. And they don’t like to be bullied or to be forced into snap decisions.

So what’s more important for companies seeking to enhance their stature in Austin—the local community or the state government?

It’s both. And companies should take nothing for granted. Recent history is rife with examples of companies that failed to cultivate constructive relations with the Austin city council while they were lobbying state legislators or regulators—and vice versa. A transportation infrastructure company ignored certain influential decision-makers on the one hand and community relations on the other—and was shocked when its legislation nearly went awry. Uber acquired a reputation for aggressive tactics with city councils in Houston, Austin and San Antonio and its attempt at game changing statewide legislation foundered last year. Who can say if the two are related? What is clear in Texas, though, is that smart companies need to engage local and state decision-makers. And have a powerful message and constructive community solutions in hand.

Texas’ demographics are changing. How should companies factor Latino outreach into community and CSR strategies?

Those changes are profound and should not be taken lightly. Within a few short years, Texas will be majority minority. As much as any community in the state, Austin is committed to breaking down cultural and ethnic barriers between Anglo and Latino populations. Companies moving into Austin need to understand their essential role in ensuring that Latinos receive equal job, education, and training opportunities.

What’s your civic engagement and CSR prescription for Apple and other companies looking to Austin?

Don’t wait till you get here. Get with community decision-makers and stakeholders before the move is made. Identify community organizations in need that complement your brand and business model. Keep Austin’s peculiarities in mind as you meet with people. Don’t foist a past program on them. Hear them out and develop a CSR program that’s new and fresh and reflects Austin’s real needs—and real desires to be different.

Katherine: you’re not a native Texan. What Texas habits have you picked up?

Football! I’m a proud graduate of Texas A&M University so I live behind enemy lines in Austin, home of the University of Texas’ Longhorns, our long-time rival. Of course, I’ve lived here so long now that I’ve probably been to more UT games. Good football is good football and hopefully one or the other of my two favorite schools will give me a good reason to head to the stadium this season!

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