Values. Forget the posters. Forget the words. A crisis is the prime moment that reveals what a company is really about and has prepared to do. Corporate responsibility comes to life, values turn to action. The rest of the world gets a front row seat to seeing who knows how to serve and who is still being self-serving.

Many responses to Hurricane Sandy reflected that CR has become an active, ongoing concern inside companies. This is a more strategic approach to CR than setting up that once-in-a-while Volunteer Week. It’s a sign that CR leaders are integrating lessons from customer-centric branding — putting customer needs first rather than lobbing pots of money for the best photo op. Then there are those companies (stand up, American Apparel) that continually remind us that they connect with their customers’ money more than with their reality.

Fast, effective and empathetic CR responses don’t happen by accident. They demonstrate planning, forethought and a strategic approach to being a partner in a 360-degree relationship with consumers and community. What does that look like? Here are some examples of companies that do this well and a few who don’t.

The good and the clueless

In response to the Hurricane Sandy, AT&T worked with Mayor Bloomberg and the City of New York to get generator-driving charging stations and RVs with charging capabilities to local food and water stations set up throughout the five boroughs. P&G’s Duracell rolled out its Power Forward Community Center and Rapid Responder 4×4 truck to power up people’s mobile device and give them online access.

Comcast took one step forward and then one step backward from their poor reputation for customer understanding. On a positive note, they followed in AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s footsteps and opened up their WiFi network to anyone in affected states. At the same time, the company’s customer service department failed the “good citizen” test by charging a customer for flood-ruined cable equipment (and The Consumerist publicized it).

Anheuser-Busch could have been the butt of plenty of jokes had they sent in truckloads of beer. Instead, they were smart and used their facilities to package 44,000 cases of emergency drinking water — a great example of asking first what was needed, rather than what was in the warehouse to give.

Not so PepsiCo, who sent (among other things) Doritos and Mountain Dew. Gothamist’s Rebecca Fishbein blogged that while the donation was “pretty nice” it also offered “little-to-no nutritional value,” and hoped that an expected cereal donation from Walmart didn’t mean Froot Loops. All part of what left many with a Sandy Five.

It would have been easy for Ernst & Young to send a check and sit out the mess, but with many of their colleagues left homeless, more than 271 E&Y families opened their homes to colleagues. More than a gesture of goodwill, this speaks volumes about a corporate culture that values trust and compassion.

Focusing on after-the-aftermath, Groupon set up a fundraising campaign for Accion to provide small business recovery microloans. Best Buy put Geek Squad Agents on the ground to support nonprofits, schools and libraries that were delivering disaster relief. OfficeMax partnered with nonprofit to launch the Hurricane Relief for Teachers (HuRT) program to help restore damaged classrooms along the east coast.

“CFL lightbulbs today are near ubiquitous, the result of a concerted effort by Walmart and GE in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A price cut in the months following Katrina and press about their superior energy efficiency from the likes of Oprah shot the curlicues to national attention and into America’s homes.”

Sympathy is nice — empathy connects

Smart CR leaders understand (and know how to demonstrate) the difference between offering sympathy and connecting with empathy. Of course, while CR should shine a halo on corporate reputation, that should never be the driving purpose for any one action. (Washing clean pots is a recipe for PR disaster.) Authentically turning values into relevant actions proves that a company can see beyond its own self-serving interest in consumers. Those companies can see that “consumer” is just one aspect of a fuller partnership with a community and nation of people.


Business Civic Leadership Center Hurricane Sandy Corporate Aid Tracker

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