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.

Published: November 2, 2012 By: monikaz