Public Relations and Disaster Relief

Jun 5, 2019
Ideas & Insights

Planning for the New Norm

By Chris Plunkett

We recently had a tornado in New Jersey. I know it’s hard to believe. One of my business partners said his wife had his kids sleep in the basement given the dramatic forecast. Her instincts were right considering that the tornado touched down less than 25 miles from their house. They were blessed with only high winds and torrential downpours – and no loss of electricity. Public relations and disaster relief is now the new norm.

We’ve learned to take storm forecasts seriously. In recent years, the resulting damage and loss of life has been pronounced – from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to the Plains states and deep south – not to mention lower Manhattan. We’ve come to expect dramatic and volatile weather, particularly in the warmer months – and we’re reacting accordingly as witnessed by the ensuing mobs of people rushing to local supermarkets and gas stations as dire forecasts settle in.

All of this has had an impact on public relations. The uptick in volatile weather and the effects of serious storms on communities has resulted in an increase in corporate philanthropy aimed at serving those most affected. Such efforts have now gone beyond contributing food and medical supplies – or volunteering in clean-up and recovery efforts – notwithstanding the significance of these efforts.

PR planning increasingly calls for the inclusion of how an organization can uniquely contribute to those impacted by a range of potential environmental disasters. Consider the broad mix of services offered in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence late in the summer of 2018.

In addition to monetary assistance and volunteer services from hundreds of companies, Charter provided thousands of free WiFi hot spots to shelters and devasted areas, Walmart set-up a mobile pharmacy and extended hours at its stores, U-Haul provided thirty days of free storage to customers most impacted by the storm and Airbnb offered free rooms to people displaced from their homes.

In addition, select banks waived ATM fees and extended payments for credit card customers, while airlines waived cancellation fees and media companies offered free airtime for public service announcements. The list goes on – and in many cases – such goodwill activities were accompanied by press releases detailing the uniqueness of the offers, the size of the charitable contributions delivered or the number of volunteering employees involved, and so on.

It seems fair to ask – can environmental disasters serve as PR opportunities for many companies? I think the answer is that as these events become more common, organizations have an obligation to provide some relief – especially within their communities. The opportunity is more about how to use your company’s strengths to provide assistance in a manner that truly benefits storm victims – while highlighting your product or service.

Another related question comes down to how should an organization “promote” its disaster-relief efforts, if at all? What’s appropriate and what’s not? I think the answer largely lies in tone and integrity. Of course, communicating a specific benefit is important from the standpoint of ensuring your customers and the greater public knows about it so they can take advantage of it. When an organization contributes in some fashion to those victimized by a natural disaster or another tragic event – they certainly have a right to let their constituents, as well as the news media know.

The best communications approach, however, from a content perspective, is always one that is focused on the facts of the goodwill campaign including what it entails and how it aids those in need – in simple language – with no promotional jargon or back-slapping. This is the appropriate and most credible approach. Deliver the right information in straightforward language and with a sense of concern for those impacted.

Natural disasters and severe weather events are becoming more common and widespread. Companies and organizations have a duty to provide relief in a realistic manner. There are a vast range of public relations services that can be provided – beyond financial assistance. Planning for such events can unite PR and corporate social responsibility and highlight a company’s culture and product strengths. Communicating such charitable giving is appropriate and often necessary – and it’s always best to do so in a non-promotional, sincere, matter-of-fact manner.