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Katrina Through A Marketer's Eyes

by Alf Nucifora

It's Sunday September 4th. The Katrina catastrophe is now seven days old and like many an American I've been glued to the television set, in between work and sleep. As I watch, I can't help but ask questions, form opinions and cast judgment, often shouting at the television set in anger and with incredulity. It's a response mechanism borne of my admiration of, and affection for, the great city of New Orleans and its people, and the inevitable cynicism that comes from being a professional marketer who recognizes the games that people play.

Let's leave blame and culpability to the historians and pundits. Instead, let us catalog the images, observations and questions, as unemotionally as we can…and as viewed through a marketer's eyes.

  • Why the slowness of the American people to comprehend the enormity of the catastrophe, one that will eventually deliver an impact more devastating than 911 in terms of long-term impact to the economy and psyche of the nation?
  • Why the slowness of the Federal government to respond to the crisis. Conservative writer, David Brooks, said it best in a recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times, "The first rule of the social fabric-that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable-was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield".
  • How does one rationally explain the Orwellian disparity between what our eyes were actually witnessing and what the authorities were telling us was happening? How could something so raw, realistic and obvious become so twisted in its interpretation? Was it base political spin at work or a genuine case of customized reality residing in the mind of the beholder? There is also the broader marketing implication arising from this disconnect…the confusion in many of our officials' minds between desire and deed. Notes New York- based marketing consultant, Stephen Arbeit, "Our leaders' desire to create an image of order, responsiveness, decisiveness and action was in sharp contrast to the deeds, what was actually happening in the streets and being shown on global TV. It made a mockery of their verbal posturing. "You can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, but you can't tell people that a sow's ear is a silk purse".
  • Where was the command and control on the ground? This is a nation that's prides itself on organizational efficiency and structure. We do it big and we always do it best. When at risk, we send in the Marines! Not this time.
  • Just how does one relocate more than a million people overnight, many of whom are penniless? And how does one actually help them to rebuild their lives? For that matter, how does one rebuild a whole city or state?
  • What must be going on in the mind of those workers who immediately stepped in to help others, at the same time not knowing their own status, circumstance or loss in terms of family, home and job?
  • Why are politicians and career bureaucrats incapable of speaking in plain talk, when, like moths drawn to the light, they parade before the media's cameras? Why can they not avoid cant, cliché, circumlocution, currying of favor and the CYA cloak in response to questions that demand honest, straightforward answers?
  • If the cameras proved anything, they gave witness to the fact that, under pressure, the uninspiring performance our current crop of politicians, irrespective of party affiliation, stands as a testament to the decades of political inbreeding and incumbent protection. With few exceptions, their inability to articulate, lead and rally was patently obvious under the glare and pressure of a disaster in the making.
  • How does one explain the early failure of corporate America, with the exception of Wal-Mart, to respond immediately to the unfolding crisis? Where was the sense of community good will or for that matter, the appreciation of the PR value in being a first responder?
  • Why was the media unable to present more than just the inflammatory and the visceral? Real analysis was in short supply. Tough questions were rare, with the exception of CNN's Anderson Cooper and ABC's Ted Koppel. And why the excision of footage showing the dead bodies? Are we that delicate a people that we require protection from the gruesome realities of life? Was it not a fundamental element of the story that demanded recognition?
  • Was the fact that the victims primarily represent an African-American underclass a contributing factor in the slow reaction to the growing crisis? This is after all is a nation still racially conflicted beneath the surface veneer. Was it because they didn't look like us or live as most of us do, in our safe suburban enclaves?
  • Will the early absence of authorities and troops have an impact on the nation's attitude to its involvement in Iraq, given the large number of National Guard soldiers serving in that region, and the common belief that their first priority has always been to guard the nation within its internal borders?
  • Watching scenes of death and destruction interspersed with trivial, commercials for beer when children were thirsty, and for ED remedies and cosmetics when hospitals patients were dying, contributed to the surrealism and disbelief that surrounded the events happening before one's eyes.
  • How does one deal with the sense of guilt, frustration and impotence at not being able to do or contribute something more beyond responding to a telethon appeal or writing a check?
  • There was the growing feeling in the pit of the stomach, that aside from the immediate devastation of life and property, the long term ramifications of this disaster have yet to register…stratospheric increases in oil and energy pricing , transportation bottlenecks, interest rate increases, shortages of basic commodities, the bankruptcy of insurance companies, the shortage of building supplies in an environment that is still years from recovery as a result of last year's hurricane season in Florida, the loss of a tax base for states that relied so much on tourism and gambling. And those are just the obvious disruptions.
  • If more than a 200 million dollars could be earmarked in a recent federal appropriations bill for a bridge in Alaska to service a town of 8000, why could funds not be appropriated to counter the acknowledged danger that confronted a city of more than a million?

These and other observations and questions will linger in the air and no doubt form the basis of much forthcoming soul searching, debate and accusation. But there are also equally important marketing issues at play, each with long term implications. First there is the uncertainty surrounding America's credibility, its brand image, throughout the rest of the world. Marketing-wise, the task is now one of re-establishing America's image of invincibility and global leadership. After all, if we can't manage New Orleans, is the world ready to believe that we can rebuild Iraq?

Close behind, is the question of how the rest of the world will respond to the tragedy, beyond the obvious offers of donations to the Red Cross. How will the press in the Europe, the Middle East and the Third World respond to our plight, and the statement it makes about our ability or inability to deal with misfortune and the misfortunate on our own shores?

And finally, don't forget the political battlefield. Overnight, it's a new playing field where the "marketing" and exploitation of Katrina will affect every significant political decision for years to come, including setting of economic policy, the election of Supreme Court justices, the pull-out from Iraq, tax rollbacks, maintenance of the Social Security system and the outcome of government rule itself in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

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