Katrina gives new meaning to Web-led crisis response

Financial service, retail hear consumer call: 'We want to do something'

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Disaster response has mobilized marketers.

When New Orleans flooded during Hurricane Katrina last year, it drove marketers to roll up their collective sleeves, in the process ushering in a new level of sophisticated, Internet-savvy corporate social responsibility.

State Farm, Wal-Mart, SBC Communications, Wachovia and others reached out to the victims of Hurricane Katrina via Web sites and corporate blogs, as well as traditional media.

Marketers such as Thrivent Financial for Lutherans are using the Internet to do well while doing good.

"If we don't [respond quickly]," says Becky Bestul, director of Web site solutions, "our members say, 'We want to do something.' They are [going] to the Web site and see what Thriv-ent's response will be and support it."

It's about immediacy when disaster strikes. Ten years ago, social and cultural support connections were reserved for a back page in annual report. Now, dedicated staff, corporate ethics ads in business publications and, if you believe some practitioners, social responsibility have been made part of the corporate DNA.

power of the blog

Once, "companies could control information" about worker conditions overseas, says Chris Deri, senior VP at Edelman, with an expertise in CSR. "Now a worker in a factory in Thailand can write about it in blog."

Mr. Deri predicts socially significant information will become "de facto required, because increasingly institutional investors are saying, 'This sort of conduct is material to our investment decisions."'

Nike, once attacked for its child-labor practices, has developed an area dedicated to responsibility news on its Web site, with discussions of everything from the environment to "workers & factories." The "Live Strong" program has been integrated with the Lance Armstrong Foundation into the Nike site.

While Thrivent operates a Web site with the financial basics, it runs other sites as well, including Thriv-entbuilds.com, with Habitat for Humanity.

Starbucks uses a similar approach, with an online newsletter discussing the environmental efforts it's taken to support the livelihood of farmers growing coffee in Africa. It also discusses recycling efforts with such partners as Hewlett-Packard and Best Buy. Starbucks has a social-responsibility page where it addresses various topics. Users can link to an newsletter touting everything from its assistance to Guatemala following Hurricane Stan to the need to identify the "water footprint," or volume of water used to produce its packaging.

But it's Katrina that has added an urgency to marketers' approaches.

Last year, Thrivent posted a donation form on its Web site so members could send money to hurricane victims. Thrivent matched those dollars.

"We know anecdotally that churches were telling people to go to that site," says Ms. Bestul. "Because we have these other activities, they are coming to us more frequently; during those visits they might be reminded they should be thinking about retirement or planning for their children's college education and connect with us as well."

Ms. Bestul says Thrivent has seen an increase in quality sales leads coming through Thrivent.com.

As a pure donation-gathering tool, the Internet is becoming essential. Network for Good was created by AOL, Cisco Systems and Yahoo to make it as easy for consumers to give online as it is for them to spend online, says Katya Andresen, VP-marketing of Network for Good and author of "Robin Hood Marketing: Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes."

MASSIVE VOLUNTEER BOARD

Network for Good has a clearinghouse of more than 1 million charities and allows people to store their donation history and search 36,000 volunteer opportunities.

Ms. Andresen says charities are reaching a new audience through the Internet. "Our average donor is 39. People giving online are younger, and these are people who don't read their direct mail. You have found a way to reach them where they are. You've opened up a new audience," she says.

She also says the concept captures people in the moment. The "Internet has transformed crisis giving. There's no lag time." During the Indian Ocean tsunami, Katrina and the recent earthquake in Indonesia, there was a huge spike in donations. "and then it plummets. People want to do something right away, and then the impulse goes away. That's a powerful thing, to be able to get people in the moment they want to give."

Chief Yahoo David Filo, a New Orleans native, responded to the Katrina disaster by designing a metasearch tool that could simultaneously search through all the sites set up to help people find each other.

In addition, a link to donate to hurricane victims was posted on the front page of Yahoo at 6 a.m. on Thursday (after Katrina started) and by 10:30 p.m. the site had processed $26 million, says Meg Garlinghouse, director of Yahoo for Good, the Internet provider's doorway to public action-anything from volunteerism to charitable donations- for its users.

"We are in a lucky position in that our product is our marketing vehicle," she says. "There are 500 million unique users who come to the Yahoo network every month. By putting something on our front page, we are reaching people."

Access to the Internet may very well be a modern basic need during a disaster. Like so many marketers, Home Depot, Lowe's and other marketers posted links to relief organizations such as the Red Cross on their corporate sites.

And while McDonald's Corp. already had a disaster plan, Katrina was different, says Steve Russell, senior VP-human resources at McDonald's USA. "Now we have implemented things like the capacity to accept [employee] text messaging in our call center. In Katrina, many people couldn't call, but they could text-message."

The fast-food giant offered Wi-Fi service in many of its Gulf-area restaurants and worked with banks such as Wachovia. "We have added direct-deposit pay cards. In Katrina, the challenge was how to get people their paychecks. Hundreds of ZIP codes were nondeliverable. Now we can immediately deliver pay cards. We can make sure they have money. We also have satellite phones on the ready to send down so we have a communication mechanism with our people," says Mr. Russell.

Wal-Mart provided 150 Internet-ready computers to Red Cross shelters for evacuees. The computers proved to be priceless to the families who used them to find missing family members, says Jason Jackson, director of emergency management at Wal-Mart. The chain posted an emergency-contact registry on its Web site that had more than 800,000 visitors. "Whatever tools that we can utilize to assist during a critical time are important," he says.