Responding To Disaster

Last night, as I was watching the Spike Lee documentary on Hurricane Katrina and its effects on New Orleans, I began wondering how many people had invoked the name Katrina in their e-mail marketing messages over the last year. The answer is: a lot.

For a short time while I was in college, I worked as a telemarketer selling magazines over the phone. The pitch was: for every magazine subscription sold, 10 percent of the proceeds would go to a particular charity. I always felt awkward about the whole thing, since it was clear that the charity was a come-on for the magazine sales.

It is always a tough call for marketers not to seem self-serving when getting involved in any type of relief effort, such as Katrina. Some play it safe by promoting donations to organizations like the Red Cross. Others seem to treat it like a President's Day promotional sale. Here are some of the companies that got involved in the days following Katrina:

Unfortunately, the first people to actually invoke the name Katrina in an e-mail marketing message were the spammers, who happened to grab random text filled with references to the tragedy in an effort to get by spam filters. On Aug. 31, 2005, promotions for diet pills and education loan offers were mixed in with the tragic news of people dying in New Orleans. Not a great brand-building exercise.



United was the first legitimate marketer out of the box to help with hurricane relief. One e-mail sent to its Mileage Plus members announced a points reward for members who donated to rescue efforts (see below); another asked members to donate their own airline mileage points to a fund that would be used to subsidize rescue workers' airfare expenses.

Running on Sept 1,'s newsletter was the first e-mail we recorded to include a banner ad for Red Cross donations to help victims of Katrina.

Not to be outdone, on the same day the Daily Candy ran a link that listed all of the charitable organizations that members could donate to. ITunes also got into the act, delivering a full page PSA for the Red Cross.

A bit more in the President's Day Sale arena was an e-mail sent out by, with a headline that read, "Help us help Hurricane Katrina Survivors," offering to donate 5 percent of September 9's sales to the relief effort.

Some folks put a little more juice behind their efforts. For instances, Kempton Hotels and Restaurants provided a credit worth a one-night stay at their hotels to frequent-stay program members who gave $50 or more to the Red Cross.

In the questionable value category, LifeTrek Coaching International provided the following offer: "If you or someone you know has been directly impacted by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, we invite you to give us a call for free coaching. Although we do not have access to direct social services, we are the right people to contact if you want a compassionate conversation about what comes next. Coaching can be an excellent way to process emotions, to set new directions, and to move forward with hope." If they could only find a phone!

Like United Airlines, MyPoints asked its members to donate points which they would convert to cash for victim relief. Coolsavings on the other hand provided a list of places to donate to their members.

The closing of off-shore casinos seemed to have hit the gambling industry hard, prompting CasinoCity to run an editorial on the tragedy along with tips on how to win at blackjack.

In an odd sort of apology, SurveySpot, which sends out offers to fill in surveys, added this condolence to their e-mail: "Our apologies if this invitation has reached SurveySpot members in affected areas during this challenging time."

One of the more self-serving e-mails sent out reads as follows:

" The Leisure Group supports hurricane relief. We are dedicating a significant portion of our commissions achieved during the month of September 2005 to help our fellow citizens. To this end we are dedicating a new website..... Please feel fee to take a peek.... We're not quite ready for prime time at this writing, but we hope that you will visit, bookmark us, and come back to purchase products and services to explode your business, enrich your life, and help hurricane victims while doing so. Help others while helping yourself."

And then it adds: "Friends, we are donating 100% of the commissions generated during the month of September from The Funk E Junk Store."

Taking a completely different tack is Neiman Marcus, who sent out the following e-mail warning to its user base:

"A note about charitable donations: The customers of Neiman Marcus are caring and generous individuals who always come forward to help during times of crisis. We encourage contributions to recognized relief organizations to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Unfortunately, Internet users sometimes receive fraudulent requests for charitable donations, sent via e-mail under the name of a reputable company or organization. Such solicitations frequently ask the potential donor to submit a credit card number or other sensitive financial information.

The Neiman Marcus Group does not solicit charitable donations in this way. Any such request using the name of Neiman Marcus or Horchow is fraudulent and should be reported to..."

Many more companies than I can mention here sent out links to the Red Cross, urging their clients and customers to donate.

And how about YOUR company. When the next national disaster strikes, what is your team's e-mail strategy?

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