Superstorm Sandy engulfed brands as well as New Yorkers
A view from Russell Davies

Superstorm Sandy engulfed brands as well as New Yorkers

I imagine you’ve done your 2013 planning by now. I hope so. But here’s a thought – why don’t you pop open that spreadsheet and insert a new line and a new budget item and call them both Weather Disaster Response. It’s bound to come in handy.

Me and my family were in New York the other week, during Superstorm Sandy. (Or #Sandy, as we came to know it.) We were very lucky – we arrived just before the disruption started and flew out just as the airports were recovering. And we were staying in the highest, driest bit of Brooklyn so, though the lights flickered, they never went out. But you could tell that, all around, people were having – and are still having – a really tough time of it. People were killed, people’s homes were destroyed. Large bits of the city were running out of food and fuel. It reminded you how fragile cities can be.

And then, of course, the brands arrived. It was not a proud moment.

Gap probably got the most opprobrium early on for using the #Sandy hashtag on Twitter to suggest people get shopping again, but it wasn’t on its own. American Ap­parel and Urban Outfitters, among others, did something similar. The New York City Marathon organisers got grief for using generators when other people had no power, as did Goldman Sachs. And it all had that grimly inevitable car-crash feeling. People didn’t really understand the impact of the storm, brands still don’t understand how to do social media and no-one really understands the mix of local and national, newsy and social, jokey and serious that is Twitter. It’s incredibly easy to get wrong, to be insensitive, to strike the wrong note. Partly because it’s just a shared media channel – it’s not a shared context.

You’ll need a strategy for ‘unusual’ weather events like you need a strategy for Christmas

Not surprisingly, the brands that got it right did something real, something useful, something on the ground. Tide sent its big truck filled with washing machines to help clean people’s clothes. Duracell sent charging stations to get people’s phones and devices powered up. (They’re both Procter & Gamble brands, by the way.)

But this isn’t about stupid brands versus clever ones. This is about learning lessons and being prepared. Those social media people who screwed up probably won’t do it again. They’re out there trying things and they got some valuable experience.

P&G got good at this by learning lessons from Katrina. And it has been getting a lot of practice recently. This is the important thing to realise. Climate change is going to create more and more of these "unusual" weather events. You’ll need a strategy for them like you need a strategy for Christmas and the World Cup final. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get good at it.