Is being first always best?

Whenever a disaster occurs, CEOs and corporate communications professionals are thrust into action, determining if and how a company should get involved in relief efforts.

Whenever a disaster occurs, CEOs and corporate communications professionals are thrust into action, determining if and how a company should get involved in relief efforts. The corporate philanthropic responses to the devastation in Haiti demonstrated a broad willingness by American businesses to help. One key question that companies needed to answer is, “Should we be first to give?”

The benefits of giving first are obvious. The company looks immediately empathetic and proactive. It's easier to generate media coverage of a donation if you're among the first. And, companies are better able to encourage employees and customers to join them in giving if they ask first.

Sometimes, though, corporate “one upmanship” can transform a company's pledge from looking generous to cheap. AdAge has an interesting story this week on the subject. The story says Wells Fargo was among the first to support Haiti disaster relief efforts, making a $100,000 donation to the Red Cross. Within days, other financial institutions had made donations topping $1 million.

As companies respond to humanitarian crises, they also need to take a second look at how their business practices can damage their reputations in the midst of their good deeds. Last week, a number of financial institutions were simultaneously making donations to nonprofits providing Haitian assistance and racking up significant transaction fees for donations their customers made. Eventually, most of the companies agreed to waive the transaction fees, but not before they were skewered in the media.

Companies have to think and act carefully to ensure their disaster assistance efforts don't turn into reputation disasters.

Lynne Doll, president, The Rogers Group

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