Disaster relief efforts get more involved

Plans and partnerships are helping companies craft quick and strategic responses to disasters

Through today's 24-hour media cycle, we can witness even the most shocking disasters as they unfold all over the globe. As the recent Southern California wildfires spread, causing destruction and loss of life, the nation watched, and some took action.

Rapid response to a disaster isn't limited to individuals who can whip out their wallets and send a donation. Businesses may also mobilize their contributions to disaster relief in a moment's notice. Similar to well-planned cause marketing programs that address persistent issues like poverty, many businesses now approach their disaster relief contributions mindful of the most effective ways that they can help. The ways in which a company mobilizes to aid in disaster relief is connected not only to the needs on the ground, but also to the company's pre-existing cause efforts and the focus of its business.

"On [October 23], when the executives got into the office and turned on their TVs, it was quite clear that this was a major crisis [that went] well beyond the Southern California region where it was happening," says Rachel Meranus, VP of PR at PR Newswire.

That day, reports of thousands of homes destroyed, residents evacuated, casualties, injuries, and the unrelenting nature of the flames prompted PRN to distribute news about relief efforts in the region at no charge.

"In our history, we've done this on a few occasions, such as 9/11 and the London bombings," says Meranus. "Our business is to distribute news. Obviously, we realize we can play an important role in helping people to communicate their [relief] efforts."

The decision to offer aid can rest on a number of factors that become intertwined with the disaster.

"It really depends on a few things about the company," says Maria Schneider, SVP of CSR at Edelman. "Did the disaster happen where the company has facilities, employees, or customers? Sometimes it's of such proportions you can't help but get involved. That was the case with the [South Asian] tsunami and Hurricane Katrina."

For Edelman client Business Roundtable, the Southern California wildfires were the first test of a partnership with the American Red Cross. A memo sent to the association of 160 CEOs resulted in more than $1 million in cash donated, more than $500,000 in fuel cards and other items provided, and warehouse space handed over to the Red Cross for its use. The organization's members also made cash and resource donations to other organizations.

The prevalence of cause-related partnerships and CSR programs is the main reason why businesses can execute such a fleet-footed response. Those nonprofits on the scene can immediately notify their private-sector partners of an urgent situation.

"Everyone we've talked to - companies and nonprofits - has these relationships in place before a disaster," says Schneider. "You know exactly who to call and how to make things happen quickly. The media always plays an important role. But even before hearing from the media, hearing from the Red Cross does the trick."

Sometimes a situation is so aligned with a business that work and philanthropy are fused by a pre-existing internal system.

On the same day that PRN decided to offer its help, insurance and financial service company Nationwide went into "cat mode," or catastrophe mode, immediately sending members of the communications team to California.

"The most important thing after a catastrophe is getting the 800-number out to get people to file a claim," says Elizabeth Stelzer, a communications consultant at Nationwide who manages its catastrophe response team.

The company sent mobile units equipped with living facilities for claims adjusters to the area to help customers and offer aid, and representatives were on hand at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, which served as an evacuation center for displaced residents.

Now that the fires are under control and people have been allowed back to their homes, claims specialists have begun assessing the damage and telling those customer stories both internally and externally.

"It's important that associates back in the home office know what their teammates are doing," says Stelzer.

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