A client of ours, who has been one of the critical organizations providing disaster aid to victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, recently posed a familiar question: how do we get the word out about what we’ve done and continue to do without appearing self-congratulatory or opportunistic?

That’s a tricky one. Unfortunately there is no “plug-n-play” answer that can be applied across disasters, industries or brands. But there are some foundational questions you can ask yourself before deciding whether and how to communicate to consumers during or following a disaster.

Why do you want to communicate?

Honest answers only here. While there is merit to capitalizing on current events to pitch a relevant product, service or news story (a strategy called “borrowed interest” in the ad world), this landscape is littered with landmines when lives and property are at risk.

If your objective is service driven – if people need to know this information to help them get through or recover from the disaster – then you can pass “GO” and continue on to the next question. But if your objective even has a whiff of financial motivation (and that’s okay if it does, just call it like it is), hit pause. At times like these, consumers’ (and the media’s) exploitation radars are on heightened alert – ready to sniff out any brand that appears to be taking advantage of the situation.

At times like these, consumers’ (and the media’s) exploitation radar is on heightened alert – ready to sniff out any brand that appears to be taking advantage of the situation.Click To Tweet

For example, just 48 hours after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the east coast in 2012, the New York Times and Business Insider both called out retailers whose tweets were deemed insensitive, if not exploitative, by those suffering through the storm:

American Apparel, for its Hurricane Sandy sale in the Northeast with the checkout code “Sandysale.” Followers were not amused, with responses like “Hey @americanapparel people have died and others are in need. Shut up about your #Sandysale.”

The Gap, for following its initially sensitive “Stay safe” message with “We’ll be doing lots of Gap.com shopping today. How about you?”

-The Jonathan Adler brand and Urban Outfitters, for using distasteful puns like “storm our site” and checkout codes like “Allsoggy.”

While these retailers either apologized, tweaked or retracted their posts, a thoughtful pause to consider the purpose – and appropriateness – of their communications may have saved them the resulting public outcry.

Is it (really) the right time? 

Even if you’ve passed the first test as to the purpose of your communication, you’ve got to ask yourself whether it can wait. People affected by disaster are being inundated with information; many are struggling just to get their basic needs met. If your message is not critical to their safety or recovery, you may want to reconsider the timing.

Going back to the Times article, several brands did make the cut both in terms of the purpose and timing of their outreach: Allstate, who used radio ads in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to describe how policyholders could file claims; American Express, who emailed its members affected by Sandy offering “emergency financial, medical or travel assistance; and JetBlue’s outreach to flyers telling them it would waive change and cancellation fees for travel affected by the storm.

In each of these instances, the brands were providing timely, useful information victims needed to navigate the aftermath of the storm.

Communications to drive donations or other relief efforts also pass the timeliness test. We can point to Walmart’s efforts here, following both Harvey and Irma. Within a couple of days of Harvey’s landfall, Walmart aired this simple but powerful PSA called “That’s Texas.” For the first 27 seconds, there is no branding, no promotion – just images of brave Texans in the wake of the storm edited to the poem by the same name, reassuring them they’re “not alone.” The end card is a thank you to Americans who contributed to hurricane relief efforts (which often drives more donations).

Less than two weeks later, Walmart aired another PSA in partnership with the Red Cross, offering to double the value of any donations for hurricane relief. Again the ad was simple and non-promotional; rather it led with the easily shared belief that love (not a hurricane) is the strongest force in nature. While it’s arguable that that both PSAs do give the company  a brand-lifting pat on the back, Walmart obviously walked the talk and helped with relief efforts before any kind of public service announcements, which adds to their credibility.

In most other cases, communications can wait. With Hurricane Sandy, Coca-Cola Company waited until after the storm had passed to send reporters an e-mail about its pledge of $1 million to relief efforts in the Northeast. By that time, media could actually process this non-urgent information; and Coca-Cola avoided the appearance of jumping on the “see-how-we’re-helping-too” bandwagon.

What’s the best way to do it?  

When we counsel clients on any communications strategy, we consider the entire “PESO” model of communications vehicles: Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned. Depending upon the objective (go back to question #1) and the target audiences, some combination of the above is usually required to get the desired results.

When it comes to communicating during or in the wake of a disaster, these vehicles may be limited due to any number of factors – broadcast and print outlets may be offline; mobile phones can’t be charged; and the time and available resources to produce or distribute content may be compromised. In times like these, some brands have taken “MacGyver approach” (if you weren’t alive during the ’80s, here’s a quick Google Search of the term) , creating the best possible communications with the limited resources at hand.

Take Visa, for example. On August 28 of this year, its marketing team met to go over plans for the NFL season. Its new ad promoting Visa’s mobile payment features was scheduled to premier during that Thursday night’s NFL game. But with Harvey bearing down on Texas, the team instead decided to use that paid media time to drive donations for hurricane victims. The sequence of events and favors that followed is heartening. Suffice it to say, within about 48 hours, Visa produced and aired “We’re All on the Same Team,” featuring football players from across the NFL, telling fans how they could donate to help those in need.  Visa saw an opportunity on a channel it had immediately available to them – with a large audience – and took it.

Choice of messenger is also important. Especially in times of need, third party advocates,  partners or recipients of the brand’s services provide the most powerful voice. The 2012 New York Times article gives the example of Duracell batteries. Following Sandy, it dispatched its “Duracell Rapid Responder” truck to the New York metropolitan area. Its crew provided free batteries and access to charging lockers for mobile devices and computers.” The word of mouth appreciation by those Duracell helped received a humble thank you from the CEO when interviewed by the Times.

Back to our client. Given the magnitude and duration of the recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, their services are still a critical need – so their purpose behind the communication is solid. Can it wait? No. Victims need to know about their service so they can access it for ongoing and future recovery efforts. The best way to communicate it? Well for that, I’d have to charge you. In the meantime, keep your eye out for more lessons learned as brands continue to navigate this important, but delicate, landscape.