Communicating in the wake of a tragedy

As public and corporate donations pile in to aid those stricken by the tsunami, the tricky situation of how -- or whether -- to publicize corporate efforts gives PR practitioners the opportunity to help clients with their strategies.

As public and corporate donations pile in to aid those stricken by the tsunami, the tricky situation of how -- or whether -- to publicize corporate efforts gives PR practitioners the opportunity to help clients with their strategies.

Jonathon Jaffe, president of Jaffe communications, says that his career as a journalist helped him in advising his clients. When the newspaper he worked at, the Star Ledger, got inundated with press releases after a disaster, the attitude around the newsroom was that companies might be taking advantage of the catastrophe, Jaffe recalls.

"When tragedy hit, we were very skeptical," Jaffe says. He and the other journalists would read the release and attempt to determine if the company's goal aligned with the overarching mission of relief work or just its own PR objectives.

This experience came in handy when Jaffe received calls from his clients who wished to help the effort and wanted advice on sending out their own press releases.

"I wanted to be tremendously careful in approaching this," Jaffe says. "I don't want to hurt my clients' credibility in the press."

Jaffe advised clients that any release should include a call others to give. For example, NJ-based housing developer client Kaplan Companies is donating $500 for every home it sells in the month of January, and Jaffe says it was the company's and his hope that Kaplan's announcement would spur contributions from competitors as well.

"In the large worldwide effort, [Kaplan's contribution is] a drop in the bucket," Jaffe says. "But by doing this, it might encourage other real estate companies in New Jersey to also contribute."

Another Jaffe client, OneChristianVoice, is also contributing a portion of its sales in the hopes other in the telecommunications industry will do so.

"If [companies are] going to publicize efforts, we have to figure out ways to convey there is a greater good," Jaffe says.

Jaffe says that some companies might look at opportunities from a sheer PR benefit, but the public - and the press - would not be fooled.

"Journalists have good memories," Jaffe says.

Online retail giant Amazon.com was among the first of many high-profile corporations to devote the majority of its homepage space to the Red Cross or other organizations soliciting donations.

"We did it as a service to our customers," says Craig Berman, Amazon.com's director of platform and tech communications. "We have a lot of people coming to our site everyday and wanted to provide to them [an] easy way to support the effort."

Amazon.com had a similar homepage donation for September 11, which garnered $6.8 million in donations. For the tsunami effort, it received 170,000 donations and $14 million in the first week. The homepage was given to the Red Cross relief appeal on Tuesday 12:25 PST and was turned into a button on the normal page on Monday night.

"It was never our intent to [promote Amazon]. It was to provide a place for our customers," Berman says. "That's where it started and that's it where it stops."

Berman says that the company only sent out a news advisory to alert people to the homepage.

Shev Rush, an account executive at Media First Public Relations, helped Kintera, a technology provider for nonprofits, produce a press release to tout the amount of money its customers raised. Kintera supplies software to Catholic Relief Services, Doctors Without Borders, American Red Cross, US Fund for UNICEF, and World Vision, which had raised nearly $20 million on their own since the tsunami hit.

Rush says that he was watching CNN on December 27 and noticed that only a few relief organizations were listed on the program.

"I got on the phone with Kintera and says, 'I know you probably have some clients that are accepting donations,'" Rush says. "The intention was to get the list of clients out."

"It's hard for [the nonprofits] to respond with a direct marketing campaign," Rush says. "The only way to get those dollars in is online."

Kintera weighed whether it should include the amounts raised by its clients as that information could be viewed as self-promotional.

But Rush argued to the company that the numbers were so unexpectedly large that it was newsworthy information to put out to the press. At the time of the press release, on December 31, Rush said it was even more newsworthy given the relatively small amount that the US government had pledged to that point.

Like in Amazon's situation, Kintera's strategy arose from its September 11 outreach.

"When 9/11 happened, Kintera decided it would donate its services to any nonprofits that were helping to respond. It in some way got Kintera good press and had some positive effects for the company, but [the intent] was trying to get those organizations out there [to donors]," Rush says

But, as a public company, Kintera has investors to answer to, so even a simple press release requires the addition of its boilerplate. In fact, Kintera had to put out a second press release on Monday that revised the boilerplate to include, among other things, "Given the extreme human toll of the tsunami disaster, Kintera is charging less than its usual fees to nonprofits raising funds for disaster relief efforts, and therefore is not updating its previously published guidance for the fourth quarter of 2004."

"The release flowed organically for what we were trying to promote," Rush says. The company had received only one negative e-mail, which opined that the company had erred in promoting itself, but received dozens of positives ones.

Not only was Kintera's contribution to the donation effort mentioned in the press, the business press highlighted the surging demand for software collection donations and pointed to Kintera's stock.

On December 31, Investors Business Daily commented on a 20% stock surge based on its donation efforts. But then on January 4, it reported that CIBS World Markets downgraded Kintera to "underperform" because CIBS says its valuation had "become stretched over the last week due to increased publicity surrounding support of charities sponsoring tsunami relief efforts."

On the PR agency side, Cone Communications sent out an advisory to clients, addressing the question of publicizing donations. It read, in part: "It is always a tricky thing for a company to strike the right tone in making a contribution of money or resources to help after a human tragedy. No company wants to seem exploitative or inappropriate. That said, Cone's latest research continues to indicate that consumers want to hear about the social responsibility efforts of companies."

Cone's suggestions were to use internal communications to inform employees, place a brief, to-the-point message on the website news area indicating what has been done, and issue a brief news release, without self-congratulations, only on Business Wire or PR Newswire, rather than its media contact list, reporting what the company has done and expressing thoughts for the victims.

The advisory was easy to produce, Cone CEO Carol Cone says, because the company does so much work in cause-branding space.

Cone says a lot of companies learned from their mistakes in the days following September 11. While most criticism was focused on New York establishments that charged rescue workers for items or otherwise failed to help, some consternation was directed at companies that posted advertisements touting their achievements.

Cone says that her clients with businesses or suppliers in the affected region, like Starbucks and The Limited, were early responders.

Cone says companies now wonder if - and how - they should communicate their donations. In a 2004 corporate citizenship telephone survey of 1,033 adults, Cone found that 22% of Americans want companies to focus globally versus just 9% in 1997. Additionally 77% of respondents wanted companies to feel responsible in helping support causes.

"Citizens and employees want to know you're participating," Cone says. "You should mention what you're doing on your website and let the media decide how they want to aggregate that."

Corporate responsibility and reaction to global matters only increases in the burgeoning global economy.

"The challenge [for the effort and corporations] will be long-term participation once it is out of the daily media coverage," Cone says.

"We're seeing a large groundswell of contributions and involvement from our member companies," says Christina Siun O'Connell, director of CSRWire, a news wire service that only lists press releases announcing corporate citizenship and social responsibility initiatives.

One of the things I'm finding is they're very engaged," Siun O'Connell says. "They're not just writing the check. Companies are responding quickly and staying involved in the response based on the changing needs."

Siun O'Connell put forth Nike as an example, which has publicly assured its employees in the region that it will support them during this time.

"It's wonderful when companies worry about how much they say publicly and it's helpful for everyone to see corporate sector really leading the way," Siun O'Connell says.

Siun O'Connell says that how companies communicate their contributions is always important, and she's been heartened by the fact that she hasn't witnessed any corporation go out and say how great it was for donating.

"We can always second-guess motivation," Siun O'Connell says, admitting that she's as cynical as the next person. "But when I see Amazon devote their front page to collecting contributions for the Red Cross, I think it's great. If they get extra points for that, then they deserve it."

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