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Why Businesses Should Watch Every Move They Make During a Disaster

As a PR firm, we’re help guide our clients with their communications strategy throughout the year. This includes times when there’s a natural disaster such as Hurricane Harvey, and now, Irma. How do major disasters impact companies?  Should they offer public support or operate business as usual? What can they do to avoid appearing opportunistic and actually help? These are just some of the many questions we’re asked during times of crisis. Before a disaster occurs, there are also internal questions that must be answered. How is your company handling employee safety if they must work? How do you handle time off that may be needed to prepare or to evacuate? A crisis can be extremely complex, and when coupled with the high stress of the situation, one single answer simply doesn’t work for everyone.  However, there is a right way and a wrong way to conduct business, and from a PR perspective, it all begins with the foundation in which you built your company.

Business as usual. Companies directly impacted by the crisis should communicate clearly and in multiple formats (email, text, flyers, newsletter, even phone call if needed) so that employees impacted can have the flexibility that allows them to take care of themselves and their families. Organizations in different parts of the country away from the disaster, who are not directly affected, can still operate business as usual. It’s important to be flexible (i.e. flex time) in case an employee needs to care for family members elsewhere. Showing support is important during this time.

Public support. Support is how our nation was built. We help each other during a time of need. It’s what we do. But, when businesses choose to make their charitable efforts public during a disaster, the line can get a bit blurry—and it can appear as though your motivation is misguided. It can be a tough call because companies don’t want to appear opportunistic, yet, they don’t want to be a bystander and take no action at all. So, what’s the right path? Our recommendation at NSPR is to do what’s natural, or organic, for your business. If you’re known for fundraisers, go ahead, have one.  If you typically make a specific type of donation, go for it. But, if you want to plan a 5K to raise funds, and you don’t have experience in planning a race, then you might want to redirect your efforts.

Social media. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and even Snapchat can and should be used to express support. Combine your support with your normal messaging. If your organization is helping to provide food as its staple philanthropic effort, post about it in a way that remains consistent with your messaging and tone. Also, avoid religious messages (unless that is the foundation and expressed mission of your business). If you prescheduled posts prior to a disaster, take a moment to read through them. You will want to ensure that posts are appropriately timed and reflect what’s happening. You won’t want your business to appear oblivious to the disaster that’s consuming everyone’s attention. A reporter once told me that she was pitched for story ideas on September 11, 2001—bad timing, so please, pay attention.

Traditional media. When should your organization proactively contact the media to discuss a disaster? You can reach out when your business is actively planning an event, and you would like to invite public support. Avoid contacting media if you’re simply conducting an internal fundraiser (unless you plan on making an extraordinary contribution). If you invite the public to participate in your support efforts and it takes place at a convenient or safe location, then feel free to contact the media.

Flexible policymaking. Ensure that your company doesn’t get caught in the crosshairs of a PR crisis due to policy. For example, Best Buy received negative media attention for selling water at what appeared to be an inflated price (24-pack of water for $42.96) during Hurricane Harvey when people were losing their homes and their lives. Best Buy later apologized for what it called a pricing mistake by its employees. On the other hand, Pizza Hut garnered positive press when its employee delivered fresh pizzas to people affected by Hurricane Harvey. The company was flexible in its policy and made these deliveries, which would have normally been outside of their delivery zone.

We hope everyone recovers soon from Harvey and that everyone remains safe during Irma. With our sincere support, we wish all the best.

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