Monday, September 1, 2014

Should You Push Brand PR in a Natural Disaster?

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 fiancĂ©e 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.

Quake Postscript

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?

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  1. Unfortunately the human interest story of growers their laborers was not at all represented by wineries to the media during this most recent natural disaster. The human labor on the front lines of a significantly damaged supply chain were most impacted in the short term by the quake. I spoke to national news outlets on behalf of Thomson Vineyards and others in our family who lost library vineyard designate wines dating back to the early 80s and media outlets continued to press me for cost of loss. The cost was priceless. Every interview I pressed that people were still harvesting that very day; the resiliency of the growers and their crews to keep delivering grapes in the aftermath was incredible. There was a real missed opportunity by the Napa PR machines who could have sent the message of the growers' commitment and dedication to their livelihoods rather than the industry's economic loss. Growers barns were in a shambles. Try finding a picking knife let alone 20 in your barn after a 6.1 earthquake. The economic loss will always be of interest to the media and a certain subset of consumers, but in this day and age where the PR machines scream authenticity on panel after panel at vineyard and winery conferences the authenticity of continuing to harvest in the wake of a significant natural disaster may have resonated with a larger subset of the population. I witnessed many Carneros neighbors lending equipment, additional support, labor crews and carrying on to harvest the grapes they were already scheduled to deliver before the quake and even though their own laborers families were scared and everyone’s houses thrashed they met the deadline. Broadcasting to limousine services and tourists that we are "OPEN!' less than 48 hours after roadways have been significantly damaged and growers are trying their best to hold it together and haul fruit out of significantly damaged Carneros region on (already substandard county roads) heavily damaged by the quake was inappropriate at best. I understand the reasoning for the "we're open for business" message and have respect for the loss of product incurred by wineries, but in the end of the day wine is a luxury product. Wine is not a necessity of life. Harvesting grapes safely and without additional tourists in the mix is our life and our livelihood.

    1. TV -Thanks for logging in and for the comments.

      I spoke to Forbes, Money, Bloomberg, and SR Press Democrat. The National writers wanted to focus on the price of wine going up and I pointed them away from that angle.

      You raise a great point about the growers issues. The only comment I saw covered was a picture of a field with dropped crop, and the news reported talking about "grapes being shaken off the vine." (I'm not kidding.) I think you are spot on that the real human interest story was in how the community pulled together - just like my own street.

      The messaging that Napa is Open is a soundbite and they aren't easy to come by in short order. What we should have been delivering is the appropriate message of what the City really looked like and what were the services impacted. It was hard to tell from the media "if it bleeds it leads" approach.

    2. If the wine industry has one topic that is not discussed enough it is exactly this, who grows, tends to and eventually picks this fruit. We sit here and discuss the nuance of terroir the typicity of varietal and the site it is grown, and the the care each one of our vines gets within a specific vineyard, but we never really discuss the lack of benefits given to these employees, the huge disparity in pay from the top of management in a winery down to a vineyard worker. To me this story is one of the dirty secrets of the industry, that and distributor discounts. But how is it that the industry who relies on these employees to pick and grow these grapes still refuses to give them a livable wage, the only increases in pay come from the overall shortage of people still willing to make this a life for themselves. So in the end I guess it does not shock me that no one covered how the earthquake has affected the vineyard worker, but covered the fact that a shoddy winery like Silver Oak had to pick up 100 bottles that fell on the ground.

    3. Thanks for comments Anon 10:14. Immigration is a hotly debated issue that I covered in a blog last year: ( .

      There is no question in my mind that we wouldn't be able to harvest or tend grapes without the mostly Hispanic farm workers who come up from Mexico each year. It frustrates me to see the crazy conclusions some have about immigrants taking jobs from citizens. I don’t know anyone that would want to put that kind of work in even for a living wage. That has been a claim made about virtually every immigrant class from the Irish to Vietnamese - that immigrants take jobs we want so the claim is nothing new. That said, the first generation immigrants I've met in the wine business are grateful to be here and feel they are making an investment in their children's future. According to US Govt stats, they are making over minimum wage, so there is a counter to your position. I'm not looking to convince or be convinced in this short space however regarding any part of the discussion. Maybe its time for an update on that immigration blog post. since nothing has yet been done.

      With respect to the Silver Oak comment, I would respect it more had you posted with your real name and contacts. It’s easy to be disparaging when you are anonymous. My own perception of the winery and especially the people is other than how you characterize them.

  2. A little off topic, but for those interested in some information on Napa Valley Farm Worker pay and benefits, here is a link to Wine Business Monthly who have posted some information:

  3. Most importantly, glad to see that Mom is actually okay and I'm sure she's used to your sense of irony and humor by now (and is that where it came from?) And thanks for the social media sonnet note, that brought a smile. The opportunity to share on social media was actually a welcome tonic to the reality of the moment, and it was only later when I realized how many people were actually following every post and the nuances they carried.

    Finally, one of the most amazing things to come out of all this was to watch the crews dig in and dig out, multi-tasking with clean-up and harvest, which had already begun for us. Upon finding out that nearly 100 of our workers had suffered a wide variety of damages, up to and including having a house knocked off its foundation, the Hess family quietly established an assistance fund that will supplement other available aid so we can relieve at least some of the stress and pressure from workers who are artfully balancing their own personal dramas with the drama at work,which is going to continue for a while.

    We'll look forward to getting back to normal -- some day -- and having the neighbors up to celebrate community.

    1. Jim. Thanks for logging in and updating the community on your situation at Hess. I know you all will get out of this in good working order. Its a real heartbreaker to lose all that cabernet that was ready for bottling. Its not like you can go to Singapore and order another container. That's irreplaceable.

      But as you say, its the combined efforts of people working together and sacrificing that put a real emotional bond in the community. Its an odd paradox that we lose things of financial value, but gain something of emotional and lasting value.

      I'm looking forward to be invited to the property and seeing what you've done. Thanks again for letting us all know you are alive and well at Hess!

  4. Replies
    1. Appreciate the cheerleading Ken. Hess can use all the good vibes it can get!

  5. I was very proud to work for Diageo (Acacia, BV, Sterling, Provenance) during the earthquake. Diageo kept us informed constantly via text messaging and showed great family compassion by allowing Sunday & Monday off (with pay). Diageo really did step up and do the right thing for it's employees.


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