When Disaster Strikes: How to Respond in the Wake of Rising Consumer Expectations

This article was published on CSRwire Talkback on  August 21, 2013.

Part of the Consumer Perspectives: Turning Insights into Action series

From Hurricane Sandy to the Ya’an Earthquake, it doesn’t take much when disaster strikes to change a person’s world forever.

The need for companies to address social and environmental issues is real and urgent, yet in the face of unexpected destruction, the mandate for company involvement becomes especially important. Cash infusions, product donations and volunteer efforts can literally be the difference between life or death, rebuilding or desolation.

Increasingly, companies are taking on disaster relief roles traditionally held for government agencies and NGOs, as citizens find companies uniquely equipped to tackle rebuilding in the wake of destruction. Findings from our recent 2013 Cone Communications Disaster Relief Trend Tracker, a global survey of 10,000 consumers in 10 countries, found a near-universal expectation for companies to not only give, but be long-term partners in providing relief solutions:

  • 87 percent of surveyed citizens expect companies to play a role in disaster response
  • 69 percent think companies are better able to effectively respond to disaster than government agencies
  • 87 percent believe companies should be involved in long-term rebuilding after a disaster, not just immediate recovery
  • 89 percent believe companies should not only give money but leverage their unique assets to have the greatest impact

This global demand for company involvement has implications for the future of how CSR is interpreted and strategized across corporations. Companies must plan for how disaster preparedness and relief efforts fit into their broader CSR programs – a quick donation or a stopgap solution will no longer cut it in the eyes of citizens. As the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season whips into full gear, it’s important to remember that although natural disasters can’t be predicted, they can be planned against. Disaster response mechanisms baked into a company’s overarching CSR strategy allow for rapid, deliberate action.

With more than half of surveyed citizens (54 percent) reporting that they’ve already joined company relief efforts and 91 percent stating they have a more favorable impression of companies involved in disaster recovery, the reputational benefits are hard to ignore.

However, companies that choose to act must tread carefully – there’s a fine line between authenticity and exploitation when it comes to brand experiences in disaster areas.

Turning Insights into Action: Five Tips for Effective Disaster Response

Although the mandate for company disaster relief involvement is clear and strong, companies that want to participate must consider how to apply assets to make the greatest impact, while considering the emotionally charged nature of disaster. Here are some tips to help map out an effective corporate disaster response.

1. Look Beyond The Check

Although donations can give relief organizations a much-needed monetary injection, the most effective relief efforts don’t always come in dollar form. Companies that leverage unique assets – talent, products, services, etc. – can often make significant impact. Banks can waive fees, restaurants can provide free meals and hardware stores can provide recovery supplies.

Duracell’s “Power Relief Program” deployed “Rapid Responder” charging stations to lower Manhattan and New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy for example. By doing so, not only did Duracell provide a crucial service, it also made a seamless brand connection, allowing the company to apply its core business strengths in an impactful way.

2. Do Your Due Diligence

As the Trend Tracker reveals, consumers put great stock in companies’ abilities to make an impact after a disaster – oftentimes even more than government. When vetting partners, make sure the nonprofit can also make a long-term commitment to relief and rebuilding efforts and is prepared to report on progress and impact. Companies should also take heed in the new age of crowdsourced donations and online giving – authenticity and credibility are more important than ever to ensure money reaches those in need.

Bank of America’s three-step process for vetting disaster partnerships is a good model to consider, starting with assessment of damage and continuing through to grant distribution. Having a process in place helps prevent oversights during urgent, all-hands-on-deck situations.

3. Engage Your Stakeholders

Stakeholders, including employees and consumers, often want to take part in relief efforts. Companies should not only provide channels for stakeholder donations to relief efforts, but also make short- and long-term volunteer and giving opportunities available as appropriate. Make sure stakeholder roles are well defined to not only alleviate redundancies and superfluous activities but also maximize their efforts.

The Verizon Foundation, for example, involves employees in relief efforts through its Disaster Relief and Recovery Program (DRIP). Activated to help in events like the wake of the 2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami when employees pledged more than $800,000 to global nonprofits, DRIP offers a one-to-one match for employee donations through an online portal and also provides information on volunteer opportunities.

4. Communicate Efforts Externally and Appropriately – and Don’t Forget About Social

No company wants to appear exploitative during a disaster. Similarly, silent companies may be criticized for failing to contribute. To ensure transparency, companies should issue brief, facts-only news releases to communicate with media and update stakeholders on efforts. Although that would have sufficed several years ago, today, social media is an equally important vehicle. Twitter, Facebook and other mobile-accessible platforms can quite literally be lifelines when other platforms are out of service. Use social media to disperse real-time information, such as locations of shelters or mobile response units.

Tide’s Loads of Hope program harnesses social media to disseminate real-time information on its vehicles providing washers and dryers to ravaged communities, like Oklahoma in the wake of the devastating tornadoes in May. Using the hashtag #TideLoadsofHope, the company alerts communities to locations of its cleaning stations, bringing basic comforts to affected areas.

5. Don’t Give and Run

Just because a disaster is no longer in the headlines doesn’t mean recovery is over – think of New Orleans, where communities are still struggling to rebuild nearly a decade after Katrina. Although immediate relief needs are pressing, long-term rebuilding cannot be forgotten. Companies should be prepared to be involved for the long-haul, offering essential support for reconstruction, such as training programs, job creation and extended fee waivers or bill leniency.

IKEA Foundation utilizes a dual emergency response approach. The first phase focuses on initial response through product donations then evolves into mid- and long-term investments in recovery efforts. The Foundation has also found a long-standing partner in UNICEF; the two organizations teamed up to provide $865,000 worth of bed sheets, towels and other provisions after the 2008 earthquake in the Gansu province of China.

About the Author:

Whitney Dailey is a senior research associate at Cone Communications on its Research & Insights team, where she works on the development and distribution of industry-leading research studies, including the 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study. Her expertise in corporate social responsibility, sustainability and social media helps to guide thought leadership at the agency, as well as the creation of a number of CSR-related tools. Whitney has a personal interest in sustainable food systems, urban gardening and sustainable sites. She tweets at @WhitneyDailey. 

Read the article on CSRWire Talkback.

Back to Insights