Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Empathy Balance

As Hurricane Gustav churned in the Gulf of Mexico, public relations professionals across the country bantered about angles to pitch the press to generate high-value editorial coverage for their respective companies or clients.

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we moved quickly on behalf of GovDelivery, a provider of Email and digital subscription management services to government agencies. Our client had a clear tie-in to Gustav because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relies on GovDelivery to send Email of emergency plans to Gulf Coast residents.

Strategic’s efforts produced the desired result as respected trade journal Government Computer News published an article that discussed how FEMA was using cutting-edge technology to inform the public.

A natural disaster can sure gin up public relations opportunities. The timeliness of the event enhances the news value of a product or service that can help address the crisis. This window closes quickly, so it is prudent for a company to evaluate how it can appropriately promote its interests when it is most opportune.

Consider the lightning sparked wild fires that plagued California this past summer. Providers of rugged tactical radios and related computer products showcased how their solutions helped first responders tackle the flames. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a catalyst for a number of stories about the reliability of satellite communications. Even a really big storm can’t knock a satellite out of the sky, or so our specific pitch to the media went.

Admittedly, there is a balance that must be struck by any company seeking to leverage the timeliness created by a natural (or man-made) disaster to promote its offerings. Step across this delicate boundary and the promoter can be perceived as too opportunistic or even cold-hearted.

Here are a couple of best practices that can be employed to ensure promotion during a time of crisis is handled professionally:

Make sure the tie to your product or service is credible. In the case of Hurricane Gustav and GovDelivery, FEMA implemented the technology to serve the public good. This was a point we stressed in our media outreach and the resulting story appropriately positioned all parties involved as being responsive to the information needs of Gulf Coast residents.

Start with the trade media. In many instances, they are open to angles that will give them an opportunity to report about a big story in a way that is consistent with the editorial mission of their publication. For instance, after the September 11th terrorist attacks a number of technology journals wrote about how video conferencing allowed companies to continue to conduct global business.

Monitor media coverage to understand a publication’s approach. A PR practitioner’s failure to read the publication is perhaps the most often cited criticism by journalists. This is especially important during a time of crisis when an off-target pitch comes off as callous, in addition to unprofessional.

Be sensitive. If a particular pitch or angle feels too opportunistic, than go with your gut and hold off. Yes…your job is to promote a product or service, yet it’s also to demonstrate compassion and caring.


Tajiana said...

Great great post! In addition, other types of companies such as retail, restaurants, etc can take this opportunity to showcase their corporate responsibility. They can donate their goods and services or make some other kind of contribution to aid their communities in disaster relief. This is a good way to demonstrate a company's committment to its product, as well as their consumer and community.

sseawright said...

Marc, good best practices but I didn't see any social media tools. There is a significant audience that relies on blogs, microblogs and RSS to get news and information. Especially as information is rapidly changing and updating. Social sites are now faster than traditional new sources. I’ve found reporters are now using sites like Twitter to get information for their stories. To make it easier, Twitter now has a tagging functionality. When you are tweeting about Gustav, you just add a tag and then your tweet pops up when non-followers are doing a wide search on the topic. I think if you are considering rapid response campaign, you should consider which social media site is most appropriate to disseminate your information. But as you said… you have to do it thoughtfully and with sensitivity.