hurricane sandy, Marketing, natural disasters, NYC marathon, Uncategorized

The Marketer’s Code of Conduct for Disasters

I live in New York City so, as you can imagine, the past week has been anything but normal. Fortunately, I live in a part of the city that was relatively unaffected by Hurricane Sandy, suffering only some knocked down trees and no cable or Internet for a couple days. Compared to many other in the city and surrounding region who are still facing no heat, a lack of electricity and unsafe drinking water—not to mention unspeakable damage from the storm surge—I feel extremely lucky.

I’m also a big runner. To my disappointment, the City of New York decided to cancel this year’s NYC Marathon. No, I wasn’t going to be running in the race this year—I didn’t run enough local races to qualify automatically and didn’t win the race lottery. But I do know that the race provides nearly half of the New York Road Runner’s annual budget and generates millions of dollars in charitable donations ($30.8 million this year). Plus, for a city still recuperating from the storm, the event would have generated boatloads of business for companies large and small across the city. One study by the consulting firm AECOM estimated this number to be in the neighborhood of $340 million a year.

Although he wanted to let the race go on, Mayor Bloomberg caved in to public pressure and pulled the plug just two days before big day. A major reason for his decision was the large public outcry that took place in the days following the storm. News coverage and the social networks were buzzing about the race, the tone overwhelmingly in favor of canceling it. I even received emails from friends excoriating the mayor and asking me to sign an online petition to cancel it. I checked the poll a couple days ago and saw that more than 15,000 people had already signed it.

On Facebook, I got involved in some conversations and asked some people why they felt the way they did, and did my best to change their minds. I easily debunked the argument that resources that could be used for recovery would somehow be diverted, because NYRR and the sponsors were going to foot the entire bill for the race, including paying for generators and security. I also explained how much money the race generates for charities and businesses in the city, to no avail. I even brought up the amazing role baseball played in the healing process for the city following 9/11 … All I got back was the snarky reply: “That was after 9/11!”

What it came down to for many was the issue of respect. “How can the city run a race when bodies are still being pulled from Staten Island?” one friend wrote me. For many New Yorkers, the thought of us dedicating any resources to something as trivial as a race during such tough times was simply beyond the pale. Now I may not agree with this rationale, but I suppose the people have spoken and the mayor has listened. No race this year.

But the issue of respect made me think about our role as marketers. What effect should tragedies and national disasters have on the way we ply our trade? Following a tragedy, is it safe—or even right—to market at all? Moreover, is there an appropriate waiting period—a specific amount of time we need to let pass—before we can again try to convince people to drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak?

I’m not sure if you saw the coverage, but a handful of firms were absolutely blasted for trying to profit from the storm. In case you missed it, there was a great post on Business Insider titled “The 9 Biggest Brand Fails Exploiting Hurricane Sandy” that gives some great examples. This one by Urban Outfitters is a personal fave: “This storm blows (but free shipping doesn’t)!” How crass can you get, right? People are cowering in their homes in fear and you’re trying to shill your products with an unfunny pun? I’m all for edgy marketing, but give me a break—all the jokers in these examples more than deserved all the bad press they received.

But tasteless ads aside, obviously there’s a right way to do things. So with that being said, I’ve done my best to come up with a Marketers Code of Conduct for use following an event like Hurricane Sandy.

  • Don’t ever try to profit off of the tragedy
  • Go the extra mile to be sensitive regarding people’s feelings
  • Save the jokes for after it’s over
  • Don’t mix commerce with condolences
  • Use your network and marketing skills for good, not to push your products
  • If you decide to help, don’t use it to toot your own horn
  • If you screw up, apologize at once

I think that list is a pretty good place to start. If you have any other ideas or items you’d like to add to the list, please let me know.

Finally, I’m curious to see what others think about Bloomberg’s decision to cancel this year’s NYC Marathon. To get your feedback, I’ve created a LinkedIn poll. Please click on this link to vote today: http://linkd.in/TsfzJG 

—Rio

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About rio_longacre

Rio Longacre is a veteran of the direct marketing space. He works at Capgemini Consulting USA as a Managing Consultant, Customer Experience Consulting, in the Life Sciences Market Unit. He is based in the firm's New York City office. Rio can be contacted at: rio.longacre@gmail.com. Or, you can follow him on Twitter at @RioLongacre. Any opinions expressed in the piece are his own.

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