After Sandy, lessons emerge for corporate communicators

As the superstorm pounded the East Coast, marketers and PR pros excelled and stumbled at their endeavors.


Hurricane Sandy created a number of heroes, as well as a few social media villains.

The actions of several corporate communication departments during and after the storm fell into both categories, carving out an unlikely place in the headlines for PR and marketing folks as Sandy walloped much of the East Coast.

The bold actions and unfortunate missteps of these organizations—among them retailers, PR firms, and government agencies—provide lessons for people working in the PR and marketing field when a disaster strikes.

Avoid pitching reporters nonessential or overly advantageous stories.

The topic of “newsjacking”—which refers to angling a pitch to a news story—became a hot topic after a handful of public relations bloggers offered advice for doing so during Sandy. Many commenters online found the advice distasteful.

At least one New York Times reporter also commented about PR pitches after Sandy made landfall. Stuart Elliott, the longtime advertising and marketing reporter for the Times, tweeted:

The tweet drew a chorus of approvals from Elliott’s followers, including a number of people in the PR industry. In an interview this week, Elliott told PR Daily that a PR pro “who was coming on fairly strong” about a pitch inspired the tweet.

“Somebody had been emailing me at work before the storm, trying to get me to cover something,” he explained. On Tuesday morning, as Elliott worked from home, the PR professional tweeted a message to him, saying: “Good morning Stuart, hope you are safe from Sandy. When you get a moment I have sent you an email.”

Unless the information you’re sending to reporters is pertinent to the disaster, ditch the email and phone pitches. The reporters in the areas effected by a disaster are working through the event, while also dealing with their personal travails (a flooded or collapsed home, and so on). An inbox full of pitches about a product launch or game-changing redesign will only alienate—perhaps irrevocably—the very people you’re paid to appeal to.

Exercise caution when marketing, particularly online.

One of the major business headlines to emerge from the storm concerned companies’ igniting social media anger over promotions tied to Sandy. American Apparel, for example, offered a 36-hour Hurricane Sandy Sale, while the Gap cheerfully suggested that people shut in during the storm shop on its website.

At the same time that Gap and American Apparel took their lumps for the ill-advised messages, other companies with less promotional or cheery tones faced criticism. For instance, Sears, which advertised generators and cleaning products to its Twitter followers, saw some people question its motives.

Ultimately, companies need to approach their social media efforts carefully—at all times, though especially during a disaster when emotions are running high.

Use clear, straightforward communication to convey essential information.

Corporate communications is notoriously packed with jargon. It’s not necessarily the fault of the people assigned to write the press releases, blog posts, and newsletters—that blame usually rests on the executives—but it’s important to understand when to drop the buzzwords and opt for clear, direct language.

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) nailed the direct approach when it informed riders and residents about the state of its subway system. MTA Chairman Joseph J. Lhota issued a statement saying:

“The New York City subway system is 108 years old, but it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night. Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on our entire transportation system, in every borough and county of the region. It has brought down trees, ripped out power and inundated tunnels, rail yards and bus depots. … Our employees have shown remarkable dedication over the past few days, and I thank them on behalf of every New Yorker. In 108 years, our employees have never faced a challenge like the one that confronts us now. All of us at the MTA are committed to restoring the system as quickly as we can to help bring New York back to normal.”

Similarly, the National Weather Service issued a warning to residents in coastal New Jersey that didn’t mince words. It said in part:

3. IF YOU ARE RELUCTANT, THINK ABOUT YOUR LOVED ONES, THINK ABOUT THE EMERGENCY RESPONDERS WHO WILL BE UNABLE TO REACH YOU WHEN YOU MAKE THE PANICKED PHONE CALL TO BE RESCUED, THINK ABOUT THE RESCUE/RECOVERY TEAMS WHO WILL RESCUE YOU IF YOU ARE INJURED OR RECOVER YOUR REMAINS IF YOU DO NOT SURVIVE.

There were at least a few people who questioned the NWS’s approach, suggesting it would cause a panic by using such language. It’s true that corporate writers should avoid hyperbole, but in life-or-death situations, clear, direct language is essential.

Understand that your crisis plan doesn’t cover everything.

Companies must have a crisis communications plan, and many do—especially the PR firms that were in the path of Hurricane Sandy. However, even the best crisis plans don’t account for everything that could occur during a disaster. In New York, for instance, the power had not been restored to residents and businesses south of 40th Street in the days after the storm. That was something that folks at the New York offices of Edelman PR did not anticipate.

“Fortunately, we do have a recovery and contingency plan, and 50 to 70 percent of this we could plan for,” Russell Dubner, the head of Edelman New York, said in an interview on Thursday. “The things we couldn’t plan were things like how widespread the power outage was going to be.”

Edelman, like a number of PR firms across the effected areas, created an ad hoc network of satellite offices—in apartments, houses, and other businesses with power and Internet access—where employees could work. They also enabled staffers to work from home if possible.

As they’ve shown, along with so many other people and businesses along the East Coast, crisis plans are of great importance, but the ability to collaborate and consider a range options beyond the plan is essential in any disaster.

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