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September 7th, 2005

Cashing In On Tragedy: Is Hurricane Katrina Another Opportunity to Peddle Your Product?

Anyone in PR knows that it’s a fundamental part of our job to “leverage the news of the day” for the benefit of our client or company. Remember Y2K? In the months leading up to the new millennium it seemed that every 24/7 news cycle contained yet another apocalyptic angle to the dangers of picking the wrong compliant software. More recently, the “outsourcing to India” backlash has given PR departments across the U.S. an opportunity to remind the media that their company bleeds red, white, and blue.

But when does “timely” become “slimy?” I’ve always assumed that our industry was intelligent enough to understand the difference between topical trends and catastrophic chaos. But as in any profession, there always seem to be a few individuals that ruin it for the rest of us. Just two days after 9/11, several members of the media received a pitch from a well known PR firm titled, “finally, some good news.” The pitch made a feeble and tasteless attempt to connect the dots between one of the worst tragedies in American history to a website that helps parents save money for college. One editor simply responded with “congratulations, you get the tasteless pitch of the year award.”

Over the past few weeks, the destruction of New Orleans and surrounding areas by Hurricane Katrina has been covered non stop by the media. And there will surely be a few individuals that try to “take advantage of this timely news story” by explaining how their particular widget can benefit someone, somewhere, somehow when a disaster strikes. In fact, some may even make a case that not doing so would be considered professional negligence. For example, what if you do PR for a company that manufactures pumps for irrigation drainage? Surely, there’s no better time to tell the world that your company’s pump would have drained the water twice as fast as those used in New Orleans – possibly saving lives and millions of dollars in damage.

But while there are certainly shades of gray when it comes to the timely vs. slimy debate, I would argue any tragedy involving the loss of human life should never be considered a PR opportunity – especially while it is still unfolding. Engaging in this type of “opportunistic” PR not only shines poorly on our profession, but it also smacks of desperation and laziness.

So next time you’re pressured by your manager or client to “leverage the news of the day,” take a minute to pause and carefully assess exactly what you’re “leveraging.” Even if your widget can help save the world from the next disaster, chances are we can all wait a few weeks to hear about it.

– Dave Black

*Dave Black is the President of the Silicon Valley Chapter of PRSA and a Director at Voce Communications.

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Add Your Comment5 Responses to “Cashing In On Tragedy: Is Hurricane Katrina Another Opportunity to Peddle Your Product?”

David Phillips on September 8th, 2005 at 3:51 am

There is very good grounded theory in what you say. The Relationship Value Model of PR posits that to connect to publics you need to offer values that are empathetic to such publics or they will reject you.

Worse, if you present your case when it affects the emotions of publics, your reputation goes down the tubes (and academic description).

As the authority on public relations in a company, practitioners are stronger when they can have at their disposal the economic, social, psychological and good old cost benefit arguments to mediate corporate actions.

Jeremy Pepper on September 8th, 2005 at 9:16 am

It extends beyond just tasteless, timeless pitches but to corporations having a need to publicize donations when it might not be appropriate. What happened to altruism?

I wrote about the same issue – http://www.allbusiness.com/blog/ThePRBlog/4167/003290.html – and how companies sometimes get desperate for a tie-in, that they forget about taste and class.