When It’s OK to Market After a Disaster

By Geo A. Ropert, APR

It’s been a terrible few weeks for the many people affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Hundreds of thousands have had their lives upended and, unfortunately, some have lost theirs. My heart goes out to them all. Some made it through with little more than a few lost shingles or broken tree limbs. Others lost everything, including loved ones, and will have to rebuild from the ground up.

When a natural disaster affects a large amount of the population, the community and region in which it occurred all experience the effects to some degree, whether they were directly impacted or not. Everyone will need time to recover and get back to some semblance of normal.

Many business owners I’ve spoken with have asked a common question, “When is it ok to get back to promoting my brand and marketing my business?” My answer is, “you shouldn’t have stopped.”

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Now before you think to yourself, “That’s callous and uncaring! There was just a major disaster! We can’t be trying to sell our products or services while others are without power or water, or are trying to salvage their lives,” I say, “You’re in business and you need to stay in business. People are counting on you!”

What I’m saying is that being there for your clients, customers and stakeholders means you ride the storm out with them. You communicate with them and stay top of mind before the disaster hits and, more importantly, immediately after and during recovery.

Of course, you need to know your market’s landscape. Is your community ok, are they recovering or are they still reeling from the experience?

And you need to demonstrate empathy and understanding. In crisis communications, we often speak about the “C’s” an organization should employ. They include candid, clear, constant, contrite, competent, capable, caring and a few others, depending on the situation and its impact. For a crisis not of your own making or result, I offer three that will show you in your best light:

  • “Compassion” shows you care about the people you serve and want only the best outcome for them;
  • “Comfort” is the assistance you’re providing, either directly to your base or the community at large; and
  • “Commitment” means you’ll be back to full business strength as soon as possible to serve them and help in any way you can.

I’ve seen several examples of brands that have followed this model and will benefit from being genuine throughout the ordeals, and offer the following key strategies that you can employ, if you haven’t already.

Pre-disaster

  • Communicate early and often. At the first sign of an impending disaster, it is paramount for companies to begin communicating to all who might be impacted. This includes customers, stakeholders, employees and, if applicable, related organizations and agencies.
  • Advise of your plans. What will be your hours of operations before the storm, what products and services will be available and when do you plan to cease operations.
  • Offer insights or tips on preparation for those who may be affected (e.g., gather critical personal and other documents, secure important items, harden structures, prepare evacuation kits, etc.).
  • Share your during and post-disaster plans. Advise if staff will be remotely located and accessible, and when you anticipate you’ll resume operations if you temporarily cease them.

Multiple forms of communication should be tapped for this outreach. Keep your website updated in real time. Post information on your social media pages and utilize text and messaging services. If possible and practical, activate a toll-free, 24-hour hotline.

After the Disaster

  • Communicate with your audiences as soon as you can. Share your empathy and understanding of what they’ve been through. It’s ok to share personal experiences of what your business or employees also endured.
  • Let them know you are here for them, to offer support, answer questions, or help them get back on their feet.
  • Advise when you expect to resume services. This is especially important for businesses that provide critical professional services such as health care, insurance and legal counsel, or service providers such as landscapers and home repair companies.
  • If you can, support your friends and neighbors. Donate financially or with products or services that can be of use, or volunteer to help families that have been impacted.
  • Provide free, discounted or other value-added offers on products or services that could help with recovery or ease hardships. I was especially impressed by a local legal practice, Cantwell and Goldman, P.A. They are offering a program called Hurricane Help. Every Thursday afternoon, anyone can meet with one of their attorneys, free of charge, to discuss hurricane-related issues such as insurance coverage and the costs associated with any damages or needed repairs to property. This is a service that many people will need and the firm is to be commended for their efforts to help.
  • Make personal phone calls to clients; it’s ok if you don’t reach them directly. A voicemail message can be just as comforting as a person-to-person conversation.
  • Send email with your three C’s message and important information.
  • If you’re a local business, send service information press releases and public service announcements to your local newspapers, TV and radio stations. Many will keep running lists in print or online.  If you serve a larger geographic clientele, utilize industry publications and regional or national media outlets.
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For some businesses, there may be a silver lining to the disaster. If you’re a restaurant or pub, serving food and drink to those whose food will spoil without electricity will be a welcome relief. Roofers, water mitigation and home repair companies will be kept busy for months. And personal care businesses will provide the creature comforts we seek; there are going to be a lot of people needing manicures, massages and hair care after days or weeks of cleaning up debris or living without electricity.

There is something important to keep in mind. In your efforts to help and do good, the key is to act with compassion and make sure any communications about the charitable actions or offerings you are providing are focused on the community first. Let others do most of the talking about the positive role your company played. If you’ve made an impact, your clients and community will tell your story and give you the recognition you deserve with continued business and support.

I hope you, your employees, families and friends can be whole again, soon. Get back to normal and back to business as soon as you can. Remember, there are a lot of people counting on you. Be a leader, a beacon of hope, a trusted resource. Be well!