How to – and not to – talk business during a natural disaster

The Australian bushfires have become a global conversation, with celebrities and brands voicing their concern everywhere from social media to the Golden Globes. The sheer scale of this disaster and the climate change-driven dryness of this season, along with parallels to other natural disasters such as California’s string of wildfires, make it likely that we will continue to talk about this issue well into the coming months.

With such a huge impact, it’s natural that insurance companies would see this as a time to share their expertise and knowledge – what’s happening with claims, what it means for industry, and what to expect in the future. But there is a right way and a wrong way to offer such expertise during a disaster. You should think carefully before wading into these conversations. If done incorrectly, you can come off as callous and insensitive, or even worse, manipulative.

To participate in natural disaster conversations in a manner that is helpful and supportive, there are a few factors insurance companies should keep in mind.

It’s Absolutely Not About You (Unless It Is)

If there’s ever a time to avoid inside-out thinking and messaging, it’s during a natural disaster. The consumers or businesses that you are trying to reach are dealing with potentially life-changing events – the last thing they want to hear is about you and your company. Avoid statements that lead with “I,” “me,” and “my.”

The one exception to this is if your company is directly involved in settling claims as part of the recovery. In such active cases, legal may limit what your statements can highlight. Even then, it’s best to focus as much as possible on impacted consumers and what your organization is doing to support them throughout the claims process.

Lead with Empathy

Who can forget former BP CEO Tony Hayward and his disastrous “I’d like my life back” comment in the wake of the Deepwater oil spill? It made BP’s efforts to help the area recover all about him getting back to normal, and not about the hardships that residents were facing. While it was just one throwaway sentence at the end of a much longer interview, it was the only part that anyone heard.

With emotions running high, flippant comments during a disaster can bury even the best-intentioned messages. Whatever you wish to communicate, start and end with concerns for those most impacted. This isn’t the time to be glib or edgy with your recovery advice, and this definitely isn’t the time to meme.

Offer Help, Not Products

While it can be tempting to promote insurance services in the wake of a disaster, proceed with caution. Consumers are primed to view such as promotions negatively or even as scams. You’re much more likely to have a positive role in the conversation if you use your risk management and recovery expertise to offer help.

For years, Anheuser-Busch has periodically paused beer production to focus on producing safe, canned water, which it provides to communities after disasters. Chef Jose Andrés used his cooking expertise to organize 19,000 volunteers to serve millions of meals after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Both have built up a great deal of goodwill for the brands without ever making their efforts about their products.

Smart organizations recognize that there is a role for them to play in responding to natural disasters and it’s often one that doesn’t speak immediately to their bottom line. By focusing on the needs of impacted residents first, and their own needs second, businesses can make sure they’re seen as supporting and not exploiting recovery situations. Sacrifice a bit of sales and profit in the short run, and you’re sure to build the goodwill and trust that will best serve your business in the long run.