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Don’t Make a Natural Disaster a Messaging Catastrophe.jpg

As you’re trying to reason with this hurricane season, a word of advice: Don’t use catastrophic events to market your products.

Hurricane Harvey decimated parts of Texas with heavy winds and historic flooding; and Hurricane Irma, which has already decimated several Caribbean islands, is bearing down on Florida and the Southeast in what is likely one of largest hurricanes to make landfall. You would think marketers would see events that are potentially deadly as times to use their church voice and quiet down the selling.

Yet, history proves that some companies just don’t know when to shut up. When Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast, for instance, in 2012, several retailers decided to use the event to hawk their wares. American Apparel sent out an email offering a sale, specifically for those in Sandy’s path, with an offer code “Sandysale” for 20% of its merchandise. The subject of the ad, as that mega storm battered the Northeast, was “In Case You’re Bored During the Storm.”

Ahead of Sandy, Gap mixed a half-hearted attempt at sympathy with a full-throated offer for commerce, ensuring its hashtag got the attention of those looking for information about the storm. “All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of Gap.com shopping today. How about you?”

These types of events also call for a special kind of vigilance to your traditional marketing and messaging. Even if you avoid trying to use a hurricane as a marketing tool, you have to make sure your message isn’t open to misinterpretation. During Hurricane Harvey, Airbnb sent out a marketing email with the headline “Floating homes, waterfall slides, & more reasons to travel.” It also featured subheads entitled “Stay above water,” and “Live the life aquatic with these floating homes.” Clearly, Airbnb wasn’t targeting the Houston area, which was largely underwater, but the images and messages seemed inappropriate, particularly since Airbnb sent them to Houston-area users and has made disaster relief a key focus of its social outreach. (The company apologized unreservedly for the email.)

Also, make sure your social media policies are updated to include some behavioral expectations for commenting around catastrophic events.

Of course, it’s difficult to ignore these events and increasingly brands are playing a role in the national dialogue, in areas like politics and current events, particularly on social media. But what commentary is provided should really show a true empathy toward the people affected by these tragedies. It is a time to express concern for customers, partners and employees who are in harm’s way, and a time to remind the world that your corporate principles are human-centered. If you must speak out as disaster looms, better to show your heart and soul. Leave the marketing for a sunnier day.

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