Business and the community cooperate to enhance each partner's quality of life in some way. The mutual economic advantage such a collaboration creates is the foundation of all commerce. Public relations are communications which support and protect this arrangement.
Most of the time, this functional relationship between business and the community rests upon your company's capacity to respond to market demands and to fulfill consumer preferences. Your niche, the value of your product, your employment opportunities (and disposable income this generates), and your conduct as a reasonably good "corporate citizen" in the community, create the focus for consumer, vendor, and public reactions to your business.
However, when regions or neighborhoods are impacted by a catastrophic event, the functional relationship between business and the community is jeopardized by threats to physical and economic survival. In an instant, the usual behaviors by which the community evaluates your business shift dramatically but predictably. Behavioral scientists point out that one can anticipate a public reaction to your business based upon its protection of people, and its protection of the ability of groups to work together.
When a disaster strikes, the community focus on your business shifts to the following concerns:
- Concern (for life safety a welfare). Does your business prioritize protection of employees, consumers, and "neighbors?"
- Concern for others affected. Does your business behave as a responsible and involved partner in community recovery?
- Concern for viability. Is your business competent to protect its own and others' economic livelihood?
- Concern for credibility and Integrity. Is your business believable in what it says about crisis management'?
By recognizing community concerns such as these, prior to the 1994 Northridge, California earthquake, Arrowhead Bottled Water Company made certain that it was ready to bring water to Los Angeles residents when nobody's plumbing was working.
Despite considerable damage to its San Fernando Valley warehouse, the company was able to utilize round-the-clock employee energy to repair its physical asset damages, and to distribute water to people lined up on sidewalks in the neighborhood.
In addition, Arrowhead donated water to FEMA, the American Red Cross, and to emergency work crews at the Northridge Fashion Center, a mall which was severely damaged in the temblor.
What was the payoff? The community was eager to assist the company in recovering its business operations. Critical "down time" was shortened, and the company enjoyed tremendous employee support and productivity when it was most needed.
Arrowhead's community involvement was covered by local TV news, and featured on CNN and ABC's Nightline. Not only did the company enjoy a boost in its community image, its employee morale was considerably enhanced, in part due to Arrowhead's role in thanking its workforce after the quake by distributing videos featuring their efforts. In the months following this earthquake, Arrowhead's revenues skyrocketed.
Sometimes a business assumes that responsiveness to its environment in crisis conditions means that your company will be held liable by others for any and all failures to protect people and assets from the multiple injuries caused by a disaster.
The truth is that surveys of community attitudes reveal a much more positive opportunity for your business following such an event.
These findings suggest that the community evaluates your company favorably, even when damages are considerable, if you demonstrate a "good faith" effort to protect people and assets. In fact, the picture of a corporation "doing its best," "accepting help from others," and "offering help to others," is a magnetic and inspirational image. The community responds with enthusiasm, good will, and a willingness to collaborate in recovery efforts.
In a disaster, the public relations arm of your company can restore the functional relationship between business and community through Communications that:
I) Acknowledge forthright, and sincerely express grief over any loss of life or injury on your premises.
2) Summarize succinctly your emergency response and business recovery activities within a context of employee teamwork, belonging, and value in making them possible.
3) Address your company's position in the community, its contribution to wider recovery efforts, and your interest in collaboration.
4) Outline your Plan to Provide updated information through scheduled media contacts, as the situation evolves. Communications focused on restoring the functional relationship between business and the community must present your company as a competent partner in protecting lives and jobs. As one component of emergency operations, your company's public relations can only be consistent, effective, and credible to the extent that your crisis management is capable, reliable, and inclusive in accomplishing its primary task.
Dr. Killorin Riddell is a clinical and consulting psychologist and owner of Trauma Intervention Specialists, a consulting firm that specializes in Crisis Contingency Planning and Human Resource protection and management for business.
This article adapted from Vol. 9#3.