The answer to the title this week is: It depends on how its done because the stakes are raised and if you screw up the message, there's a larger opportunity to end up with scrambled egg on your face.
This past week has been pretty hectic for me and all my neighbors who live near Hess Winery. Early Sunday morning I woke to my fiancée screaming in my ear and the bed jumping like ping pong balls in a bingo parlor. Pitch black since there was no moon, I jumped up but couldn't find shoes or a flashlight. No matter, I had to move alacritously to see if my mom was alive in the back 40. With nothing to illuminate my path, I slid barefooted through all my shattered Riedel stemware - brail style, then maneuvered my way through the maze of furniture which had moved around like Tetris blocks.
The refrigerator had moved about 4 feet closer to Russia - enough so that Sarah Palin could probably see it from Alaska. It blocked my moms door and she was trapped. After pounding frantically on the door for somewhere between 3 seconds and an hour to see if she was alive, I was reassured to find her only dazed from getting hit in the head by a flying plantation shutter and only a little blood oozing out her ears and eyeballs, but otherwise no worse for the wear. She's tough and wanted to get in the game so just wanted Band-Aids over her ears. That didn't work so well when she tried the same remedy for her eyes.
After checking in with the neighbors and finally with the sun coming up, we started the clean up. While sweeping up all the broken crystal stemware, busted plates, dashed pictures, pulverized memorabilia and smashed coffee cups all mixed in with garlic olive oil, I was wondering how others in town were handling the events?
What would be the stories coming out of the quake? How were my clients doing? How do people efficiently communicate in a natural disaster so others hear how they are doing? How do we collect the information and get it out to the world without over-sensationalizing it? What are the risks in communicating under duress? I think everyone see's right through thinly veiled attempts at self promotion versus authentic attempts to come together as a community and help those in need.
Messaging in Natural Disasters
There were many real life examples that I thought were both good responses and mediocre in their impact in this specific disaster. Some were grassroots efforts like Lew Perdue driving around the impacted regions, trying to get the message out and find help distributed via a chat room. There were local efforts like the NorthBay Business Journal, Wine Business Online, and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat who each had quake sections following coverage helping us condense the mountains of information. But the obvious communication opportunity for wineries was through network news stations whose van antennae popped up like corn in Nebraska.
What separates the responses into effective and ineffective messaging can be defined by showing authentic sensitivity to others, and being especially cautious about the appearance of self-interested statements and actions.
It's been a high-wire act at Visit Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Vintners, and the Napa Downtown Association, the City of Napa and others this past week. What I appreciated about the leadership of those groups is they didn't stand in front of cameras themselves and proclaim "we're open for business." While easy to get sucked into that spot, that much needed message as this article summarized was largely delivered through their membership and impacted people. That message can be delivered in an association web page because eyeballs are specifically looking for that perspective, but an on-camera appearance might lack credibility depending on the message delivered.
It's far more powerful to have a merchant or winery owner talk about their experience in a disaster, talk about their specific situation and their personal recovery, and then ask for people to come out and support all the local merchants. Having a representative of a local business association or chamber speak in front of the cameras can have a feel like of the mayor of Amity in the movie Jaws who was letting everyone know all was well for the 4th of July weekend.
Examples With Increased Risks of Failure
Emotions are heightened when there's no water, electricity, injuries, when lives are disrupted, and with people feeling vulnerable. Whether you like it or not, your actions in that setting will describe in the clearest of tones what your business is about. The most vile demonstration of moral failure by humans in a crisis is looting. The corollary to that in business are incidents of price gouging.
Such was the case after Superstorm Sandy when the state filed charges against many businesses including the Comfort Suites of Mahwah and eventually settled for $110,000. That is despicable behavior and I'd be curious how many businesses actually survive that public display of immorality? In the case of the South Napa Earthquake, I didn't see any examples whatsoever of that kind of predatory behavior but am interested if you have in the days following?
Lets Talk About Me
An example of a questionable decision that impacts a brand could be seen at First Street and Highway 29 in Napa. Within 24 hours, several insurance companies had prominently positioned their motor coaches resplendent in very loud corporate branding. Ostensibly they were there to assist their client's in filing claims. Perhaps that's helpful in something like a tornado or hurricane but the move displayed a lack of sensitivity since the insurance carriers clearly knew that less than 6% of property owners in Napa had earthquake coverage. I'm guessing to the extent anyone actually stopped at the motor coach park, they were told they weren't covered and were probably offered more coverage.
There were lots of excellent examples of effective messaging such as this story about the situation at Starmont Winery which was very close to the epicenter. I loved the honesty of their CEO Rene Schlatter being open about being uninsured. That's a common thread that emerged from the reporting an may have some follow on discussions in government circles.
There were other excellent responses such as Saintsbury who had the KGO evening local news broadcast from their site, and as a consequence ended up with a segment on the ABC National News (below.) I thought Trefethen Winery also did an excellent job of getting out in front of the damage, receiving great coverage of their situation in local and National news. Another one was Hess Winery who used Social Media to write something of a sonnet to talk about the wine stained sandstone despite major issues as Jim Caudill notes in the lead video. By the end of this past week every winery I knew had also sent an effective email to their followers updating them on their specific situation. That was the right thing to do.
All of these are great methods of getting newsworthy issues out to those who were concerned such as customers, former visitors, family friends, people with plans to visit your winery, restaurateurs, Napa wine lovers, and yes - even future customers who struck by your situation, might be inclined to go to dinner and try your wine in support.
Old School Client Care
But aside from pure media and public relations - and skipping social media for brevity, one of the best examples of brand building I saw after the quake came from Don's Pool Supply. Don is old school. It's not easy to find a digital presence for him and you aren't going to find his picture on line. He has a simple single page web page with directions, and he doesn't have a shopping cart on the site. How has he stayed in business for the past ... oh ... about 100 years? Answer: When they say, "How can I help you?" They actually mean it.
After the earthquake, Don and his staff kept the store open as long as he could stand it every day until late at night. He was dealing with 60 new service calls a day and people who were without showers, electricity, and in some cases had pools split down the middle. The best way I can express their service ethic though was when I came in with a busted plastic screw embedded in my pool sweep. One of the guys in the shop took me to the back room, showed me the trick to remove them when that happens which is about a 10 minute trick. He replaced all the screws and charged me fifty cents. I told him he had to charge me at least $20 for the labor and his response was, "Nope. You'll be back." That's someone with a long view of business.
Your Brand is Defined By How You Positively Impact Others
I can give several other stories about Don, but the message I'd like to convey is in a highly emotional setting like a natural disaster, everyone's instincts are heightened and its WHAT YOU DO to demonstrate sensitivity and help others that will positively define your brand and bear years of positive aftershocks.
Telling the world you had no damage and were open for business without referencing those who suffered would have been a mistake. Gouging is the sign of someone who won't be in business long. Donating to a relief effort quietly, helping others without corporate branding plastered across your efforts - those are ways of leaving impressions with those who matter. That's how to build a brand in a natural disaster and for most people, that feels pretty good.
The end of my earthquake story for those interested - no my mom wasn't bleeding from the ears but she is tough. What was nice about the end of the day on Sunday after cleanup is we made some dinner, delivered some to our next door neighbors who needed an assist, then we sat down to a little vino in the 2 glasses that remained along with a cracked Starbucks plastic cup.
Though we didn't get water back until Friday morning, and our stemware was in pieces in the trash, I can tell you that time together at sundown was civilized even in crap cups and glasses. It was a relief to have a small bit of Switchback Ridge cabernet contribute to our sense of normal, and it reminded us as my mom likes to say, "The sun always comes up in the morning."
We'd made it through a major natural disaster. Our street which was rocking pushed back, and neighbors came together to help one another. The best news is in that process we saw our street turn into a neighborhood which might be a topic for another day.
What do you think? Did you see examples of price gouging? Did you see examples of 'iffy' and self-interested actions? Did you see how people pulled together and did the right thing and that positively influenced your opinion of their brand?