by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington
It seems that nearly every industry trade publication these days contains an article or two about the tragedy in Japan, and with good reason. There have been so many important learnings for communications professionals – around crisis outreach, risk communications, stakeholder engagement, and integrated strategic public relations to name just a few. Another relevant takeaway for our industry – whether on the agency or the client side – is that there is an opportunity for everyone to do something in response. If you need a communications bucket to put that into, try corporate responsibility, because this is the perfect opportunity to put it into practice. Let me explain:
Just over a year ago, in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster ever to befall Haiti, I wrote about the generous and inspirational commitments that individuals, organizations and corporations were making in response. I also wrote about the very best way to help in times of disaster, based on lessons long learned by government, NGOs and others in the disaster response and relief community.
Now, in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster ever to befall Japan, I feel compelled to revisit some of those same themes and learnings. It’s unfortunate that just a year later, we are faced once more with a seemingly unprecedented crisis and the prospect of a long, hard recovery and rebuilding process. If there is any glimmer of a bright spot here for humanity, it is that when times are their worst, people and companies are often at their best. And, with each disaster, we have the benefit of knowing what worked – or didn’t – in previous instances.
According to the latest data collected by the Business Civic Leadership Center, response by the corporate sector has been incredibly strong – more than $200 million dollars in aid committed in just over 10 days. If giving continues at this pace, it is on track to surpass business support for disaster relief efforts following the January, 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Individual giving to major relief agencies is also picking up, totaling more than $64 million just one week after the disaster. And that’s a very good thing, because the cost, by any measure, is going to be severe, even for as advanced and industrialized a nation as Japan. Experts now estimate the cost could reach $309 billion, making it the world’s costliest natural disaster ever.
Most telling for me about the true need and real plight of those affected was the appeal I received from ChildFund International, an organization that I support. On an ordinary day, it noted, ChildFund Japan raises funds for the programs it implements in developing countries around the world… but today is no ordinary day. For the first time in its history, ChildFund Japan launched an emergency response effort for its own country.
One of the most important lessons the world has learned from responding to disasters is that cash donations are the best way to help the people impacted, especially in the initial aftermath. Cash is immediate, it is flexible, and it provides for culturally and geographically appropriate support. Most importantly, it allows disaster relief organizations to purchase exactly what is needed, and to procure materials near the affected area, cutting down on transportation time and cost. It also supports regional economies and speeds the rebuilding process.
One of my clients, the Center for International Disaster Information, has been tracking and advocating for responsible and appropriate disaster response for more than 20 years. Over that time, they have witnessed some incredibly insensitive, culturally inappropriate, inefficient, and even harmful responses. Simply put, when individuals, groups or companies send stuff that is unneeded, supply chains get clogged, boxes must be unloaded and warehoused eating up precious time, personnel and storage space. Ports near Sendai and many throughout the Miyagi Prefecture are severely damaged; some will be closed for months. There are extremely limited points of entry for the critical relief supplies being brought in by experienced agencies, so it’s critical that they not be choked up by well-meaning but unneeded donations.
Worse than that, in some instances after disasters people send items apparently without any thought at all. Hard to believe, but people have sent winter coats to affected people in tropical climates; companies have sent stale cookies and long-expired medicines; canned ham has been shipped to predominantly Muslim countries and canned beef to predominantly Hindu areas; in one shipment of donated supplies, a relief agency found used tea bags; party decorations were mailed to families who had just lost their homes. And, in perhaps the worst instance of inappropriate disaster response ever, one company sent a shipment of breast implants. However well-intentioned, it often seems that some companies and organizations don’t take into account the full impact of their donations. They are in such a rush to act, that they forget – or just plain fail – to think.
That’s why in the midst of this tragedy, I am encouraged by the thoughtfulness and innovativeness of corporate response, not to mention the sheer volume of companies expressing an interest in helping. Some companies, because of their unique capabilities, core competencies, knowledge and expertise, and product and service offerings, are in great positions to bring those things to bear after a disaster. This is especially true when they establish long-term relationships with relief organizations ahead of time, and invest in preparedness and contingency planning.
In the past week alone, I have read about and learned of some truly responsible and wholly appropriate ways for companies to do their part for the people of Japan.
First and foremost, companies are giving cash – lots of cash – and they are directing it to the experienced, credible relief agencies that are already on the ground, the ones in the best position to help and to help quickly. Firms are matching employee donations, and many are waiving transaction and service fees for their customers who are making donations. And, many companies are giving products, services and expertise that have been specifically requested by agencies on the ground – equipment, supplies and know-how that are desperately needed right now.
• Coca-Cola has pledged $31 million in cash and much needed beverages to relief and reconstruction efforts. The company is also donating its TV and radio ad time to public service announcements encouraging Japanese citizens to conserve energy, a necessity given continued power outages in much of the country.
• Wireless carriers and telecommunications firms are facilitating text donations and allowing customers to call and text family in Japan free for a specified period. Others are offering free programming from TV Japan to keep their subscribers aware of what’s happening.
• Financial services firms like American Express, MasterCard, Visa, Discover, Citi and Western Union are waiving fees on donations and money transfers to Japan for specified periods. Wells Fargo has programmed its ATM machines to accept donations for relief efforts directly from customers.
• PayPal, Zynga, Living Social, Sony, Apple, Facebook and other tech, gaming and social media firms are doing some wonderfully creative things to help people make financial contributions.
• Airlines are awarding bonus miles to their frequent flyers as an incentive to make donations. Hotels are allowing their customers to convert rewards points into cash donations to relief organizations.
• GE is contributing $5 million in cash, equipment and service – including critical expertise and a 24-hour command center related to their nuclear energy business.
There are many, many other great examples of companies not only doing the right thing, but responding in the right way. Take a look at some of the inspiring commitments being, cataloged by the BCLC’s Corporate Aid Tracker. The bottom line is that sending cash donations is the very best way to help the people of Japan, especially right now. CIDI and the State Department are directing people and organizations interested in helping to InterAction, a large coalition of U.S.-based international non-governmental organizations.
Many of the same companies noted above have also announced major commitments to provide additional funding, materials and support during the post-disaster phase, when rebuilding and re-development will be the priority. This is important, because as we have seen so many times in the past, when a disaster no longer makes the headlines or the evening news, the world often forgets about it and support for vital rebuilding efforts can wane. The long-term generosity and commitment of many companies will help pave Japan’s long road to recovery that lies ahead.
Our hearts are with Japan and her people. As Emperor Akihito said in his solemn address, “those who were affected by the earthquake must not lose hope.” They must “survive tomorrow onwards…and continue to oversee the rebuilding process.”
A few blocks away from where I sit, thousands of cherry blossom trees are blooming. These are the living legacy of a gift of friendship to the U.S. from the people of Japan 99 years ago. In addition to being beautiful symbols of friendship, these trees are symbols of strength, hope and resilience. So too is Japan strong, hopeful and resilient. Like the sun so perfect and proud in the center of her flag, the Nisshōki, the sun will rise over Sendai tomorrow. And it will rise the day after that. It will shine on Japan. And in time, her people will once more be able to bask in its warmth.