This article was originally drafted for Forbes.com by our CEO, Robbie Wright. See the original here.
Hurricane Harvey dominated the news cycle for weeks and will likely remain in the mainstream media for months to come as we learn more about the extensive rebuilding efforts. In the same week, Hurricane Irma barreled up the state of Florida and there were two other active hurricanes, one in the Atlantic and the other in the Gulf of Mexico.
Like other agencies, we had to have hard conversations with our clients about the best way to respond to these national disasters, walking the fine line between contributing to a charitable cause and self-promotion. While we don’t want our clients to come off as opportunistic; we also can’t remain silent. We have to find a way to add our voice in a meaningful and respectful way.
This matter has been especially weighing on our team and we feel we have a unique point of view to offer. As an agency, our work family was heavily impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Our Houston office was forced to shut down nearly the entire week we were under Harvey’s shadow. Two of our employees were forced to evacuate and one lost her home.
When the storm was hitting hard, I looked out my window to see my street transformed into a river. Feeling uneasy, I sent an email to the rest of the team asking their opinions on (for lack of a better word) capitalizing on hashtags that were inevitably trending. What is the best way to respond? How should we advise our displaced Houston clients? What about clients who were unaffected?
The short answer is: Don’t make it about you.
Use Thoughtful Messaging
Once you’ve got that out of the way, it’s important to remember there is nothing wrong with giving back via a charitable cause. Charities are desperate for resources and business has to go on for you and your clients. Make sure the message you craft is tactful and highlights the charity and how others can help. If you choose to send proceeds of a product or service to a charity, be thoughtful about the charity you choose and how the donations will be used. Make sure your offer is significant enough to warrant your inherent self-promotion or else you run the risk of being accused of profiting off a natural disaster.
We have a spa client in the Houston area that thankfully had no damage — employees were able to get back to work there fairly quickly. Another spa in the area offered free services to first responders, which was a great idea, though we knew our client did not have the resources to follow through on that kind of offer. They desperately wanted to give back to their own neighbors, a feeling we now know well, and they chose to do so by offering 25 percent of service fees to an amazing local charity. In their messaging on social media, they came from a place of understanding and comradery, saying they were glad to be back to work providing the city some much-needed relaxation and hoped to be able to give back monetarily while doing so.
While many companies have chosen to take a similar approach in donating proceeds of products or services, we encourage you to think outside the box and find other thoughtful offerings that might be unique to your business. Another client we have in the Houston area is a natural body care line. In addition to monetary resources, shelters had a desperate need for hygienic products. This client was in the unique position of being able to help in a direct way. They quickly began packing bottles of body wash and ended up hand delivering 20 gallons to local shelters.
Keep in mind any events or plans you or a client have coming up and be cognizant of current events, adjusting as needed. As an agency, we had an opening event for our Houston office planned a few weeks after Harvey hit. Invites had already been sent out and we didn’t want to put this event on hold, though we didn’t want to seem insensitive to the climate. Instead of canceling, we chose to pivot the event. Putting our heads together, we figured out how we could use the event to give back to the community. The event took on a new theme and was largely focused on gathering donations for local charities.
Anyone who has been part of something like a natural disaster knows that anything helps. If you aren’t thoughtful and genuine with your approach, it will show — which could hurt you or your client’s brand. We encourage you to become part of the conversation during trying times, as long as it is in a meaningful and respectful way. Just remember: Don’t make it about you — highlight the charity, be thoughtful and pivot if needed.