Transparency, disasters, and the private sector.

Truth never damages a cause that is just – Mohandas Gandhi

As astute readers of this blog may know, I work for a relatively large tech company ($VENDOR) with the day-to-day responsibility of preparing and helping the public sector when a crisis happens, whether that’s a natural or man-made event. For free.    

Think about that for a second.  (I do all the time) – that’s a pretty strange beast right there.  A for-profit company (and anyone who has ever bought any of our stuff knows how for-profit we are, amirite?) that’s not just concerned with business resiliency (as all businesses should be) but actually going into the middle of the disaster to leverage all that tech equipment and skill in the public good.  

This is, by any research I’ve done, a relatively new beast – I couldn’t find any instances of this prior to 9/11 that wasn’t motivated by a legal duty somewhere (the telcos, for example). 

But getting to the point where we are with our program: building and maintaining trust with our public-sector partners requires a commitment to transparency, and without it, I don’t think any private sector effort in disaster will go far.  

What the private sector wants

Large corporations that are involving themselves in disaster response and humanitarian relief are often trying to balance two competing motives.  

First, their shareholders, employees and other stakeholders are looking to them (being the kind of businesses that care about their social responsibility) to DO SOMETHING.

Secondly, the public and especially those in the affected communities will tear you up if it even looks like you’re trying to make hay out of someone else’s tragedy.  You can’t market in a disaster.

During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, one of the major search engine companies posted a message on Twitter that said “for every time you RT our <marketing message>, we will donate <amount of money> to the Red Cross,” and boy did they get flamed over that.  You’re a business!  Why don’t you just donate the cash to the Red Cross without trying to promote your search engine.  This is a marketing message disguised as disaster relief.   

To their credit, said search engine company apologized for their messaging and donated the cash to the Red Cross in its entirety.  

You can see how this is fraught with peril from a business perspective, right?  

What the public needs

The public (or public sector) often asks for three things:  cash or in-kind donations, equipment and skill.  But the greatest and most rare of these three is skill. But without trust, none of these things happens.  

In the early days of our program, when we’d contact an EOC to offer ourselves up as a mutual aid resource, we would often get a conversation like this:

“Hi, this is Rakesh from $VENDOR and I want to…” (me)

“Hey, why are you calling me right now?  Don’t you know I’m working on a huge disaster?” (EOC staffer)

“Yeah but what I’m offering is…” (me)

“This is no time to be talking about selling me anything!” (EOC Staffer)

*click*

I don’t recommend this method. 

 

How do we get there?

If you’re in the private sector, the most important resource you have that affects your ability to assist in a crisis is trust.  Without it, all your motives are suspect.  Your reasons for acting are the most cynical ones.  You’re trying to make a buck.  Or greenwash your tarnished reputation … you get the idea.

Building trust requires transparency.  Transparency in your motives, your goals, and your limitations (there is, after all, a legitimate line between CSR and traditional business activity).

So that’s why we publish our activities in our public CSR reports every year, and we build extensive after actions reports that are shared within the company as well as to the public agencies we supported in a particular event, and why even our social media playbook is public.

We all know that the private sector has unique resources and talents that ought to be brought to bear during a disaster.  Building and maintaining that trust requires a commitment to transparency – it’s not just a way to operate, it’s the only way to operate.

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