The Ethics of Rescue Marketing

By Christopher Penn, Director of Inbound Marketing, WhatCounts

If you’re unfamiliar with the term rescue marketing, it’s a marketing strategy used by some in the aftermath of any major disaster or event. Fundamentally, a rescue marketing strategy targets customers of companies affected by a disaster and attempts to lure them away while their current provider is unavailable.
One of the textbook cases of rescue marketing occurred in 2009. The server hosting company Rackspace ran into power issues in one of its data centers, causing significant service outages for its customers. Despite the trouble, Rackspace was a role model for transparency, updating its customers frequently and honestly about the issues they were having.
During their crisis, a whole host of competitors piled on, attempting to lure away Rackspace customers using the rescue marketing strategy. 
A notable exception occurred when Rackspace competitor ServInt’s CEO Reed Caldwell came to the defense of Rackspace:
“There are several companies, if you can even call them companies, who have been in business for less time than a stale pot of coffee and are throwing mean spirited, transparent promotions out to justifiably angry customers.  We feel this is not only in bad taste, but it is unethical and an excellent testament to how they view their fellow hosting providers.  You attract customers by providing great service and thereby earning it, not by bashing someone else’s. To those who are seriously considering these services, how do you feel about a company that devotes its time and energy as a vulture?  If something similar happened to them, would they be as communicative?  Could they even survive it?  Would you want someone who holds such contempt for other businesses to be trusted to host your own?”
Reed’s defense of Rackspace became legendary in the server hosting world and the gold standard of how to respond to a competitor’s troubles in a time of crisis. 
Fast forward 3 years, and the media monitoring industry is facing a similar situation. Noted industry leader Critical Mention had a data center adjacent to the New York Stock Exchange, which was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy (to the point where backup systems were also destroyed). As a result, their platform has been down during the recovery period and they’ve followed Rackspace’s model of transparency with frequent emails and social media updates to their customers.
[Test] Critical Mention Service Update 3 — Inbox
One of its competitors, a company called TVEyes, immediately seized on the opportunity to do some rescue marketing in the aftermath of the disaster with an aggressive advertising campaign:
Marketing during Sandy — Inbox
and PR outreach:
TVEyes offers free service during Critical Mention outage - PR Newswire - The Sacramento Bee
The question the PR and media monitoring industry now faces is whether they accept rescue marketing as a valid tactic, especially in a case where a service provider is knocked out due to a major natural disaster (as opposed to negligence).
My opinion on the matter mirrors Reed Caldwell’s: you earn business by being the best provider possible, not taking advantage of natural disasters and other unavoidable interruptions of service. That said, what’s your opinion on rescue marketing? Is it ethical? Do you take advantage of rescue marketing offers? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

About Christopher Penn: I speak publicly about digital marketing. I’m also the Director of Inbound Marketing atWhatCounts enterprise email marketing, a co-founder of PodCamp with Chris Brogan, a co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee marketing podcast with John Wall, a professor of Internet Marketing and lead subject matter expert, curriculum designer, and professor of Advanced Social Media at the University of San Francisco online. I’ve been a practitioner of the martial arts for over 20 years now, and currently hold a black belt in ninjutsu under the guidance of senior master instructor Mark Davis of the Boston Martial Arts Center.



  1. Steven Spenser on November 2, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    If a reliable company offers a reliable replacement option, I don’t see why cost-sensitive customers should not avail themselves of the opportunity. Many industries and marketplaces are vigorously competitive; rescue marketing is simply good business sense. Would you scold consumers who patronize Amazon or Walmart for not giving their business to local retailers instead, even though it would mean they would spend more money on higher (local) prices? Of course not. If we can’t fault the consumers who make such purchase decisions, then we have no grounds to criticize retailers for seizing unforeseen opportunities. Retailers don’t exist in an altruistic, we’re-all-in-this-together, “It’s a Wonderful Life” marketplace. I see nothing wrong with competitors competing, and when they do, customers usually benefit.

  2. Tom Miale on November 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Not a fan of “Rescue Marketing” at all. It seems to be the equivalent of digital ambulance chasing.
    That being said, I think that customers choose a service for a reason. Practices like rescue marketing may take customers in the short run, but honesty, transparency, and most of all good service (all of which Critical Mention seem to have) will win out in the end.

  3. Curt Bizelli on November 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Interesting concept. I related it to Crisis Prevention at first when I heard the term, but I see it is different, yet all ties together. Its good to have these plans in place (for everything). Thanks for sharing. God bless, PR rocks! – CBiz

  4. Brian on November 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    It’s very clear that TVeyes has taken advantage of a terrible situation. It’s so childish for the previous commenters to simplify everything down to “it all fair in love and war”.

    Crisis are suppose to showcase what’s best about human nature and not the opportunist nature of TVeyes. If I was a customer of TVeyes I would be very wary of such a dark way to grab business from a competitor.

  5. Jim Reynolds on November 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Great blog post Chris and thank you for bringing light to this topic and approach. Previous to working in social listening I spend a fair amount of time in the hosting business specifically working for an enterprise email hosing company. Even in that market knowing how easily one company can fall due to a raid failure or a data center change there was a certain level of ethics between vendors. Even at its darkest I never saw a company release a press release to take advantage of a national disaster.

    After watching the public struggles of the critical mention team this previous week I truly felt for them seeing their competitor attempt to poach clients in a horrid situation. But one thing to keep in mind in. Saas business you mange to attrition and any clients won this way will hav zero loyalty and on top of that they’ve developed an competitor (including brand champions) who will remember. Though in the short term it will be profitable long term it will paint a target that wont wash off.

    As for the critical mention team, great work guys and amazing job communicating, so few folks do that right and you did great. I know that alone will be one of the major reason I’d recommend them I’ve given the chance.

    Jim Reynolds

  6. Jonathan on November 5, 2012 at 4:19 am

    “Rescue Marketing” might work initially, but in many cases it mostly attracts new clients who have no allegiance or are only interested in going with what’s cheapest.

    Longer term, these are the folks who will be quick to jump ship because they are only loyal to themselves. Clients who love a product or service are usually willing to give that provider an opportunity to correct a problem – or in the case of a disaster, get back on their feet.

  7. Alecia O'Brien on November 5, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    This story just really boils my blood!

    TVEyes took advantage of CM’s misfortune, and proceeded with malicious intent to steal their customers, with absolutely no concern for the impact the hurricane had on their competitor’s livelihood or its employees.

    I’m sorry – but that’s just not playing nicely in the media monitoring sandbox.

    Opportunistic marketing campaigns can work well – when executed with careful consideration. However when TVEyes’ press release indirectly expressed great satisfaction “we didn’t miss a beat” and use misplaced humour to mock the situation “well, you’re sunk”, they well and truly crossed the line of business ethics.

    Opportunistic marketing campaigns that are honest and transparent are ethical.

    This will all come out in the wash when TVEyes’ newfound customers realise the type of characters they’re now dealing with, and then retreat back to Critical Mention anyway.

  8. Mark Riffey on November 25, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Only blog post I’ve ever read that made me reconsider the name of my business – which is not about the kind of “rescue marketing” you describe here.