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Even a terrorist attack can't keep good publicists down

By SCOTT BARANCIK

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 15, 2001


Just hours after two hijacked airplanes cleaved the New York skyline Tuesday morning, corporate America's spin machine began to belch and purr:

A Jonesboro, Ark., company issued a news release saying its Web site would record the names of the dead. Visitors could add a photo or poem at www.nationalobituaryarchive.com for just $9.95 a year.

Calling gold the "Rodney Dangerfield of investments," coin dealer Paul Montgomery urged reporters to interview him about the sudden spike in precious-metal prices. "The terrorist attacks again show people still turn to gold," said Montgomery, president of Louisiana-based Jefferson Coin & Bullion.

The World Wrestling Federation said it would go ahead with a Smackdown! event scheduled to take place Thursday, two days after the attacks. Chief executive Linda McMahon said the decision squared with President Bush's call to "get Americans back to their everyday routines after this barbaric act of terrorism."

Other companies gave nobly. Software maker Knoa Corp. of New York offered free, temporary desk space for up to 20 displaced workers. Licensed therapists from Chicago-based My Therapy Network offered free, 24-hour-a-day counseling by phone. Foremost Insurance Co. of Grand Rapids, Mich., gave all its U.S. customers a two-week grace period on their payment deadlines.

Like many traumatic events, the slaughter of innocent thousands this week has brought out the best and worst in human nature. Corporations have been no different. Some act generously, others out of self-interest; many split the difference. Good consumers should be able to spot the difference.

Take Swissair. A news release issued Wednesday said the airline provided free bus and ferry service home for 296 Americans whose flights had been diverted to Canada. A nice gesture, no doubt. But publicizing it served no purpose except to burnish the company's image.

Comparing competitors can be instructive. Wells Fargo & Co. of San Francisco pledged $1-million in corporate funds to the American Red Cross. U.S. Bancorp of Minneapolis, a $165-billion rival, did not. Instead, the parent company of U.S. Bank and Firstar Bank said it would waive cash advance fees and other special charges levied on attack victims, and make its 50,000-plus employees wear red, white and blue Friday.

Many wealthy companies pledged little or no cash, passing the donation plate to employees or customers instead. It's a cheap way to sound charitable.

The Mall of America in Minneapolis said it would collect donations at a candlelight vigil in its parking lot. Payless ShoeSource Inc. said it would seek customer donations at its 4,937 Payless and Parade stores, and match up to $100,000. Weis Markets Inc. of Sunbury, Pa., will collect donations at its 164 stores. "Many of our customers want to help," president Norman Rich said, "and we do, too."

Would-be talking heads were quick to volunteer their services to a news media equally hungry for publicity. Author Ed Skoudis offered his commentary on U.S. vulnerability to hackers. Control Risks Group of Los Angeles served up experts on risk management. Rowan University faculty member Robert Fleming shilled his knowledge of terrorism preparedness. Mental health experts too numerous to name took bids for their soothing advice.

Some reputed acts of charity fell short. Kmart Corp. of Troy, Mich., said it would try to keep gasoline prices low at its 21 Kmart Express stations but said any future price increases would "be a direct result of our suppliers." Denver-based eBags.com boasted that it would accept Red Cross donations via its Web site, but visitors to the site are assaulted with pop-up boxes inviting entries to sweepstakes contests. Winners receive a wallet or a Club Med vacation.

But bragging about one's charitable activities can actually be a good thing if it inspires others to follow suit. Would Verizon give millions to the American Red Cross if Sprint Communications wasn't also contributing, or vice-versa? Don't bet on it. Competitors match one another's charitable work just as they match products and prices.

- Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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