17 December 2015 11:07:47 IST

Do crises present a marketing opportunity?

When a firm does good for society during a crisis, it should hold back on the publicity

As the sun comes out in all its glory in a beleaguered, half-swamped Chennai, journalists are busy analysing what was right and what went wrong during the recent catastrophe.

I too had to start thinking about this, when a journalist asked me, “Is it right for companies to take advantage of a crisis and use it as an opportunity to build their own image, or further their marketing efforts?” This is, by no means, an easy question to answer, but let me try.

First, we need to acknowledge that whatever happened in Chennai a fortnight ago was the “mother of all crises”. It literally took us by storm (please forgive the pun). It affected rich and poor alike, and more, significantly affected all companies in more ways than one as both, their employees and customers, were affected with varying degrees of difficulty.

While everyone was universally appreciative of individuals who gave money or took to the streets to volunteer and rushed to the city to help from other centres, companies that went to help, strangely, did not meet with the same undivided approval and appreciation. And that is precisely what we will be debating in this piece.

Helping or capitalising?

Different companies got into the act with an immediate sense of urgency. Zomato offered a free meal if you ordered one; Ola and Uber offered ferrying and free cab services, whilst Cognizant offered an amount of ₹260 crore as relief fund.

Of course, we should not forget that social media sites like Google and Facebook were invaluable in reaching out to people who were in trouble and released “safe” messages, much to the enormous relief of friends and well-wishers in distant places. Mobile services too offered free recharge, though in the same breath, one must say that the average mobile service user in Chennai was completely annoyed at having been let down by a struggling network, which finally gave up at the most crucial time.

While all of these had beneficial effects as far as the struggling population was concerned, the response to corporate help was mixed, at best. Zomato was violently criticised in social media and the CEO responded to it as well , making it a free-for-all online. The company felt it was unfairly being singled out despite its humanitarian efforts. “We are being needlessly attacked by armchair critics and advocates of ethics who are secure in the comfort of their own computer screens, and who are not doing the slightest to help people in this hour of need,” said the companies.

Is there a right way?

So what is the right thing to do and say in situations like these?

There is no disputing the need to actually do something at the grass-root level and do it fast. It is what follows by way of communication that seems to be the problem. Should companies immediately send out a press release, even as they send the relief truck? Should they immediately start preening that they are good corporate citizens who care for the society and afflicted humanity? I can understand companies saying that they are doing something that is real, and tangible. They are not making forward-looking statements of what they are going to do, and that is justified.

But I merely have a problem with the timing.

If the companies step back for just one instant and ask themselves a simple question: “Why did we do this? For publicity or for helping people in distress?” the answer will present itself almost immediately.

Many of us have heard of the Bhagawad Gita. It might seem strange to talk about it in management circles, but what it says makes a lot of sense in today’s business context. It says, “Just do your duty without worrying about the fruits of the action”. How relevant is that message in this moment of crisis when multiple choices present themselves! Should we be loud and in-your-face about our altruistic work, when the whole world is mourning and struggling?

It all boils down to the timing. And if you ask me, now is not the time to seek publicity.

What sort of company are we?

Companies should reflect on their own long-term image objectives. I’m sure most companies would have these intentions: “Yes, we want to be seen as a company with a heart; yes we care about our fellow human beings. Yes, we will put our money where our mouth is and yes, we will wait for that press release”.

After all, let us remember that building corporate image is a process, not an event, however attractive the opportunity to shout would seem at the moment.

Think about it.

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