Sunday, September 11, 2005

Disaster Marketing, Hurricane Katrina and Mount Vesuvius.

This is about the ethics of marketing and selling after a disaster. It’s a bit of a ramble, I’m afraid…starting as it does in AD 79.

Until Vesuvius blew its top on 24 August, 79, citizens and vacationers in Pompeii didn’t know that mountain four miles away was a volcano. It had been inactive for, say, 1,500 years. Romans had built themselves quite a resort city along the Bay of Naples. Most people didn’t evacuate – they stayed in their homes, temples, and baths thinking that the buildings would protect them. Almost all of them were trapped and died from fire, asphyxiation, or outright burial under yards (not inches) of ash and pumice.

The Roman Empire never rebuilt Pompeii and the other cities that were destroyed by volcanic eruption.

There’s one surviving account by Pliny the Younger. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, was a Roman official in command of the fleet at Misenum, at the top of the Bay of Naples. The elder Roman took his vessels toward Pompeii, attempting to rescue the citizens; he died on the beach. The younger Pliny wrote, “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices.” (Read his letters at

People acted like people – mostly good, some bad, and some who saw a chance to take advantage of the survivors and people in the surrounding areas. Novels and movies have the occasional scene of ship owners overcharging desperate evacuees. Read history, and you’ll see this bad behavior repeated after just about every natural and man-made disaster in the record book. Gen-u-wine souvenirs from the recent battlefield at Gettysburg? The ‘I Survived Andrew’ tee-shirts, coffee mugs, pillows? The guy who tells you your roof is totaled, takes your money to repair it, and is never seen again?

After Hurricane Katrina, I see all the good again: the real outpouring of supplies and funding from all over the world, selfless volunteers, businesses who genuinely put themselves and their employees at the service of consumers and businesspeople who have to continue their lives, who need to keep their businesses going. Company after company has been searching out employees and their families who have been devastated by the hurricane, offering relief in massive, well-managed doses.

I’m also seeing the Web sites set up to illegitimately capture credit card numbers from potential charitable donors. A very few businesses are soliciting work from companies under the guise of ‘helping.’

There’s likely a set of ethical guidelines for businesses in these situations. Maybe a blog reader will send it along for posting. (I’d personally start with the Ten Commandments.)

For charitable giving, you can’t do better than checking with the Better Business Bureau (

Meantime, I think you ought to ask yourself (as a businessperson in this situation), “Am I doing other people, other businesses, real good here? Or am I taking advantage?” You have to answer these questions for yourself, or consult with someone in the clergy. Ethics are not situational – they’re full-time.

At a minimum, I suggest the Golden Rule – and I hope I can always practice what I preach. The next volcano could go off right underneath West Houston.

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