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Friday, January 15, 2010

Lessons from Tragedy

The tragedy in Haiti has dominated news coverage since information first began pouring out of the tiny island nation about the massive earthquake that rocked the country and killed hundreds of thousands.  For small business owners and non-profits, trying to pitch a story the past week, at least in Colorado has probably seemed like "Mission Impossible."  Now, before we move on with this entry, let me assure you that is is NOT an entry on how to take advantage of others people's suffering for personal gain.  It's not that.  We are not carpetbaggers.  We are human beings who empathize with those who are suffering and struggling in the wake of this awful incident.




Let me also say that there are lessons to be learned from this event, and others like it, if you take the time to sit back and watch.  As a small business owner and non-profit the Haiti tragedy might seem like an opportunity to do something for the people of Haiti and, in the process, raise the profile of your organization.  And for some, it is just that.  But there are major hazard signs and roadblocks for any business or non-profit choosing to take this route.

Let me start by saying I've been there.  I've been on the ground at horrible events such as the Columbine shootings, working as a reporter and producer.  I've seen the public relations machines kick into gear, I've seen the botched press conferences, I've heard the spokespeople make remarks I know they wish they could take back.  I've also been in the newsrooms when releases have come across my desk trumpeting humanitarian efforts from every group from the local deli, to schools, to major and minor non-profits.  Many of the pitches were genuine and the groups involved were truly interested in helping those in need.  But, like with any major event, there were those that were simply trying to take advantage of the situation.

I've also been there working as a public relations professional, working with a non-profit trying to raise money to help people in need.  And let me tell you, this kind of community outreach and public relations effort is a road filled with landmines that could explode in your face if you're not very, very careful.

A Case Study:

I was working with a firm in Denver during the Katrina Hurricane devastation in New Orleans.  Let me say that this PR firm was, and is, run by professionals, highly knowledgable and genuinely wonderful people.  I have nothing but glowing things to say about them and the firm.  I respected them then, I repsect them now.  So when the owners approached the staff about dropping some of their daily work to pitch in for a client putting together a major fundraising effort for the people of New Orleans, of course we enthusiastically jumped in.  Another side note:  this was a completely pro-bono deal, all the work was done for free, and believe me, there was a lot of work done on the project.

The goal of the client was to raise one-million dollars, with the non-profit organization matching dollar for dollar every donation.  In other words, if the campaign raised one million dollars, the organization would match it with another million, making the total amount given, $2,000,000.00. 

We put together radio ads, we drafted print ads, we established media partnerships, created messages, and made a full blitz in the traditional media, including live interviews with the non-profit leaders on radio, tv and print.  We organized a press conference with specific members of local and state government on the steps of the state capital in Denver.  And we did all of this in about a week.  We helped the non-profit reach its goals and we felt pretty proud about our work and had a sense of satsifaction that we had done our part to help those truly in need.

So imagine our surprise when we started to hear about, and receive some backlash for our efforts.  Not from the organization, or from the company owners, but from some prominent members of the public, some of the masses and even some in the local media.  Here is where I have to tell you that the group in question is a prominent gay, lesbian and transgender non-profit organization in Denver. 

Suddenly the organization was being accused of grandstanding during a time of crisis.  We had used a photo of a family stranded on top of a car during the flood to illustrate the plight of the people of New Orleans in some of our print ads.  We were accused of being insensitive.  We had to squash rumors that the money was only going to help GLBT groups in New Orleans, which wasn't true.  And, despite the amount of money raised and ultimately given, the efforts may have actually hurt the non-profit in terms of public perception.  Notably, though the organization continues to work actively to help people in need in times of crisis, they have never been as highly visible as they were during the Katrina crisis.

Looking back, there are certainly a few things we could have done differently, starting with a less intrusive media blitz.  Our line of thinking was that the media blitz would get the word out quickly and help raise the funds needed in a short period of time.  What we didn't realize was that, since every print ad, radio ad, and television appearance was branded with the non-profits name and logo, it must have seemed to some that the organization was more interested in self promotion than actually giving a helping hand, which wasn't true.  However, if I had to do it again, I would think twice about such prominent branding in the print and radio ads.  As for the television appearances, well, the organization was partnered with the American Red Cross.  In hindsight it might have been a better idea to simply let the Red Cross representative take most of the airtime.  By allowing the Red Cross to thank the organization, it makes the non-profit in question look humble and simply happy to be helping out.  That would have been a better choice than having the non-profit take the lead all the time. 




I would also rethink the print ad photos.  You can see an example of the photo used in the print ads above.  Perhaps using scenes of devastation, rather than a family in real peril would have been a better choice.  I, personally, thought the photo would slam home the real need and the dire situation faced by the people of New Orleans.  I thought the emotion clear on the faces of those on the car would pull at the heartstrings of potential donors.  While the photo DID accomplish all those things, it also angered many, who didn't want to see a family facing death on the hood of car in the middle of a hurricane.  I know we lost some potential donors because of that photo, fortunatey, it didn't impact the overall fundraising efforts, but it could have; we probably dodged a bullet on that one.

One final change I would make if I had to do it all over again would be this:  I would definitely do more outreach online.  Certainly, social media wasn't as big as it is today.  MySpace was still the dominant social media outlet, but blogs were already established and websites were already extremely important to the success of an organization. 

Fast Forward:

Now let's take a look at what is happening today, five years later, as organizations scramble to reach out to the people of Haiti.  One of the things I've done consistently since leaving the newsroom, is to sit back and watch how major events like these unfold.  What I've been fascinated by is how much more involved the general public seems to be now than it was even just a few years ago. 

For instance, community groups have always come forward to help out when needed.  Church groups, civic groups, school groups, non-profits, even small businesses; all have pitched in and done some extraordinary work. 

But I took a look at my Facebook page this morning and counted over 100 messages asking me to donate to help raise money for Haiti.  That's one third of my entire friends list.  My email was full of requests to pitch in with money, canned goods, clothes, anything that might help.  Go click on Google and type in Haiti earthquake.  You'll find hundreds, HUNDREDS, of websites dedicated to helping those in need, many newly christened for this event alone, many others belonging to non-profits making the Haiti tragedy their current focus. 

The event is still too new, the news still too fresh, we're too close to the tragedy still to see the entire pitcure.  But I'll be truly fascinated to see the numbers when it all shakes out.  I would be willing to bet that the amount of money raised through social media outlets will dwarf any previous social media fundraising efforts and may actually be bigger than many of the more traditional fundraising routes.  We'll see, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Lessons Learned:

So, as a small business owner or non-profit what can you glean from the events taking place in Haiti?  There are several:

1.  This is not about you, or your organization:  This is about helping people.  If you are able to put together a fundraising program, please feel free to publicize it as much as you want, but be aware, the effort has to focus on those in need, not you.  If you continually praise yourself during your efforts it will turn people off.  It will look like grandstanding.  Trust in the people that donate to you.  They'll make sure they know who is getting their money and you will benefit from their charity, even without blowing your own horn constantly.

2.  Find established partners:  This is especially true for small businesses, but it can also be important to established non-profits.  Finding a partner such as the American Red Cross, credible media outlets, or other groups that have a history of helping those in need, will allow you to accomplish a few things.  First, you'll be able to help, which is most important.  Second, you'll be linked with already established, well-known and credible organizations, who, most likely, already have a pretty high profile.  This means you don't have to work as hard to meet your goals because you'll be part of a team, not striking out on your own.  You'll also get the benefit of learning from an organization with experience.  Seeing how they handle these situations will help you down the road if you choose to pitch in again.

3.  Speak softly, but carry a big stick:  Okay, well, this isn't really in the spirit of exactly what Roosevelt the First said, but the concept is the same.  Through social media efforts, any organization can have a big impact in humanitarian efforts, particularly when the tragedy is so recent.  Making a big push online is a great idea, but, again, do it without trumpeting yourself too much.  This is where a viable partner can really help.  People will be more willing to donate online to organizations they are familiar with.  

4.  Make sure your story works:  If you insist on pitching a story to traditional media outlets during  a time of crisis, you had better be sure that your story is somehow linked to the crisis in question.  And that link had better be solid.  Because if it's not, newsrooms will see you as an organization trying to get personal gain from the tragedy.  That's a bad thing.  If you lived in Haiti once, you might be an excellent interview, and if they get you on, focus on the topic, not your business.  You can certianly mention if you're raising money, make a plea for donations even, but don't spend any time talking about what your business does.  


An addendum...let's say you own a salon or barber shop.  You might decide that you'll raise money by taking the cost of every haircut for a full day and donate it to a particular non-profit.  This is a great humanitarian effort.  You can pitch this to local newsrooms looking for interviews, but you might be better served to simply let the newsrooms know you're doing this, don't necessarily make a request for interviews, just ask them to note it in their newscast or in a short blurb.  Then make a big online/social media push to let your customers and friends know what you're doing.  Then let the social media aspect take over.  Let your customers and friends tell their friends and hopefully, you'll be packed with customers on the day in question, and hopefully, the people who come to you for the first time because of this effort will become longtime customers.


If you insist on pitching this as an interview and then manage to get one, but then get on tv or the radio and spend your time talking about your salon or shop or hairstyles or products, you will not only turn away potential customers, but you'll anger some folks enough you'll likely lose current customers.

5.  If you're only helping out for media purposes, don't do it:  For all the grief we used to give the vewing, listening and reading audience when I was in news, we as journalists still respsected the general public.  And we respsected them because, as a group, they were always going to be smarter than we were.  The American public has a pretty decent sense of right and wrong and they have a wonderful bullshit detector.  If your only goal in helping a fundraising effort is to gain some notariety or raise the profile of your organization, then you'd be better off served by doing nothing at all.  The public will know.  They will see how you react, they will hear your words and they judge you by your actions.  And if your actions are more about your and your organization than actually helping out, then you're doomed.  Even if you really want to help out, but you're still focused on your own organization, you'll suffer the wrath of an angry public.

In the end, what it comes down to is helping for helping sake.  With the social media tools at your disposal today, you can really have a positive impact if you want to.  Remember that partnerships can be beneficial, whether it's in traditional media outlets or in social media circles.  Join hands with your fellow small business owners and non-profits and do what you can to help out.  If you do that, everyone wins and once again, we can stand witness to the power of social media, public relations and, more importantly, the goodness of the human soul.

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