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Dec 02, 2008

How to Market When a Crisis Strikes: 8 Strategies to Prep for Disaster

SUMMARY: Your best-laid marketing campaigns can suffer when disaster strikes. You still have to get your message out, but you face a state of crisis and turmoil.

Discover strategies you can use in a time of crisis. Two marketing vets of two of the largest nonprofit disaster-relief agencies in the U.S share how they continue to solicit donations and get their messages out even when disaster strikes.
Most crises strike suddenly. In a best-case scenario, like for a hurricane, for instance, you might have a day or two to prepare for its landfall. For other disasters, you’ll be hit with little or no notice -- you need to have a disaster plan ready and waiting.

Marketers who sell products or solicit donations to lessen the impact of disasters live with this scenario. When a disaster strikes, they are inundated by competing demands. They prepare for crises well in advance.

“They move fast and furious, and one gets ahead of you, it’s hard to catch up,” says Melissa Temme, Director of PR, Salvation Army. In addition to her PR role, Temme works with the nonprofit’s marketing team, corporate partners and regional offices.

Discover eight strategies Temme and Jeffrey Towers, Chief Development Officer, the American Red Cross, use to stay organized and keep revenue rolling in for their causes after tornadoes, floods and severe storms. These strategies can be adapted for any crisis or emergency.

Marketing Through a Storm: 8 Strategies

Strategy #1: Prepare as much as possible

You will not have much time to draft a media plan once a disaster is looming. Try to get as much done beforehand as possible. This includes:

o Advertisements
Make sure that the footage for your television spots and the layouts for your print ads are almost ready to go. Create the majority of the messaging, leaving a few portions to be filled in with specifics later.

o Other marketing communications
Prepare your emails, press releases, direct mail and every other medium you use to reach your audience. Again, complete most of the work early and leave space to fill in the details later.

o Media buys

Temme and her team usually buy TV and print spots during the holiday season. During that time, they’ll negotiate for ad space to be donated in the event of a disaster, even though neither company knows when that will happen.

“It’s wise to think about what you can do in advance and how it relates to what you’re doing already,” Temme says.

Temme’s team works with an agency to negotiate media buys to increase their negotiating power.

Strategy #2: Make it really easy to purchase or donate

Break down the barriers between your company and people wanting to give you money. Many people are displaced during disasters – they’re away from their usual ways of communicating. Make sure that you’re available through the Internet, telephone, mail, wire transfers, and that you have partners or affiliates pulling for you.

Temme and her team keep their donation information identical during every campaign. They always push the same email address, website, phone number, and mailing address, whether they’re soliciting on a national or a local level. The donations are routed back to the giver’s zip code for local donations.

This has two benefits. First, there is no question where people can go to contribute to the Salvation Army. Second, it makes it easier for first-time givers to become long-term donors.

Strategy #3: Respond right away

Most of a disaster campaign’s money will pour in immediately after the media alerts the public and shows the aftermath. Because that initial phase is vital, Temme emphasizes preparation, and Towers’ team has a heavy immediate response.

“We need to be very prompt at the moment a disaster strikes with our appeals. If it’s something that attracts significant media attention, the response to those appeals will be much better than if they’re going out without that media attention,” Towers says.

During big events, the media can take the burden of raising awareness off your shoulders. The media, however, is not always paying full attention.

Two hurricanes in the past year, Gustav and Ike, for example, attracted much less media attention than hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Towers’ team had to leverage more partnerships and paid media for this year’s hurricanes -- even though they were comparable in size and destruction to those in 2005, he says.

Strategy #4: Keep up momentum

Revenue will drop off quickly after an initial surge. Here are some ways you can keep up momentum and avoid a steep plunge:

o Encourage multiple purchases/donations

Be quick to thank people for their business, and remind them about your company’s impact on the disaster. Show them how their money is helping people. Follow up with them in the way they contacted your company. If they mailed you a check, send thank-you notes and future messages through the mail.

o Continue to run advertisements

The story will inevitably run its course in the news cycle and fall out of interest. That does not mean that the disaster has run its course. Your marketing campaigns need to remind people that the event has not disappeared.

o Stay relevant

Use your PR team to keep stories about the disaster in the news cycle. This will keep up the public’s interest, and earn publicity for your company’s efforts.

At first, staying in the news will be easy because of the scale and scope of the disaster. As your company’s efforts ramp up, you can release statistics on the number of products sold, meals served, people helped, etc. (See creative samples below for press release examples)

“Then it gets a little trickier because you don’t just want to send out a press release to update numbers every day…After the first few days, it’s trying to find what’s new or different about what you’re doing today,” Temme says.

Try to focus on more human-interest stories, such as the story of one person you’ve helped and their situation, as the news cycle wears on.

Strategy #5: Get information from first-hand sources

Information from your people working in the affected region is very useful to news outlets. You can use the material to craft press releases, pitch stories and make your people available to the media for interviews. This has the benefit of keeping the story in the news and promoting your company’s efforts.

Collect information on:
o Number of people you’re helping
o Number of goods you’ve moved
o Conditions on the ground
o Individual people stories (both good and bad)

Have members of your PR team on telephone calls with your people on the front line, and anyone involved with the campaign. They’ll know a good story to pitch to the media when they hear it.

However, communicating with people in a disaster area is one of Temme’s biggest challenges, she says. The telephones, Internet and traditional mail services are often gone. Through a gift from a corporate partner, her team has invested in satellite trucks to help communications.

Strategy #6: Partner with other companies

This strategy works particularly well for nonprofit agencies. Companies that have shown an interest in humanitarian efforts in the past might be willing to help your efforts. Towers’ team often has partnerships with corporations that extend well beyond cash donations.

Partnerships have included:
o Media companies providing free ad space and time
o Beverage companies donating water and ice
o Sports organizations donating scoreboard advertising
o Brick-and-mortar retailers requesting donations at cash registers
o Sprawling corporations donating logistical services

Large companies want to show their customers and the media that they’re helping out. Reach out to them before a disaster hits to work out an agreement.

Strategy #7: Do not use exploitative messaging

Be mindful of people’s feelings. You do not want your marketing to appear to be cashing in on the despair of others. “You have to be careful that your messaging doesn’t become all about the organization,” Temme says.

Emphasize compassion for the people you’re helping and how you’re helping. Avoid seeming arrogant, as in: “Look how great we are and here’s what we’re doing!” (See sample email below)

Images can help your campaign’s impact, but leave images of suffering to the media. Instead, show aerial photographs of the affected region, or smiling faces of people receiving your services. You will be less likely to be accused of profiting off people’s hardships.

Strategy #8: Find long-term customers/donors

After a disaster, always follow up with people who became donors or customers during the event. Tell them how many people you’ve helped, remind them that you’re open year-round and provide other services. If they’ve shown that they care once, there is a chance they’ll work with your company again.

“The national trend is that of those donors who give impulsively in reaction to the disasters that we commonly respond to, about 6% to 8% will continue to contribute beyond the disaster itself,” Towers says. “That’s very much a long-standing trend in the industry.”

Useful links related to this article

Salvation Army Disaster Campaign Creative Samples

Salvation Army:

American Red Cross:

See Also:

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