Major events — political, natural, or economic — create a lot of eyeballs on a select set of media and stories. But as friends chimed in on Facebook, Twitter, and texts, they shared stories of who stood by them during the crisis. My colleague Christine Overby and I were discussing what marketers did and should do during a crisis. Do your customers need to hear from you during Hurricane Sandy? We’ve seen a few best practices from companies that are handling communications in a helpful and dignified way. We hope they are useful to our readers in charge of customer communications, both this week and in general.

  • USAA's mobile app reduces angst. The USAA Mobile App allows customers to report a property or auto claim, submit photos, and view claims status. Storm-related tweets featured a link to the app so that customers knew how to find it and submit a claim. One friend of mine was able to submit a claim, including photos, in about 2 minutes, allowing him to focus on cleaning up the debris. Its relative ubiquity — available for the iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry — means that any USAA customer with a smartphone can take advantage of these game-changing and life-managing services.
  • Citi Cards and American Express send emails to offer personal assistance. In a service message to customers today, Citi Card anticipates their needs and offers relevant services like access to cash, fee waivers, and general instructions for getting help. Similarly, American Express offered affected customers help with emergency financial, travel, or medical services. The message from both is targeted, helpful, and intentionally brief — creating the right tone and value in the middle of a crisis.
  • Wall Street Journal and New York Times suspend paywalls to keep people informed. These New York-based papers put aside their business needs to open their content to all visitors to the site during the storm. Readers have unfettered access to news and updates until the emergency is over. It’s the perfect example of knowing when public good trumps business as usual, and quickly executing to make it happen.

But don’t feel like you have to speak. Ham-fisted tweets like the Gap’s “All impacted by Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of shopping today. How about you?” always invite scathing responses like “Drowning in cotton Gap hoodie. Send help.” If you’re a business whose customers or operations are not directly supported by these quirky or self-promoting zingers, then you’ll say it best when you say nothing at all, or focus on business as usual for the rest of the audience.

How are you responding to Sandy? Let us know how you have responded or wish other companies would respond to this very tragic event.