Disaster leads to PR tightrope

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When does humanitarianism turn into opportunism?

Since the damage from Hurricane Katrina became chillingly evident, corporate America has had to ask itself that question. Its broad-scale relief effort has lent a hand to some of the more magnanimous companies, such as Wal-Mart, which had public officials speaking about the retail behemoth in the glowing terms usually reserved for rescue workers.

Still, "there is a great deal of sensitivity here," said Mike Paul, president, MGP & Associates, a New York-based PR firm.

Walking that line starts with taking care of one's own house, said one crisis-communications expert.

"Take care of your employees," said Leslie Dach, vice chairman of the independent PR firm Edelman. "The first big test for many of these companies is how they treat their employees on the ground in the affected areas."

After the storm, many corporations did just that. Web sites of major banks, retailers and other companies with heavy footprints in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama featured forms for employees to fill out to communicate their location and well-being. These demonstrations of concern, Mr. Dach said, goes far in making the financial gestures meaningful.

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