Realtime Brands And Natural Disasters: Lessons From Hardee’s and Joplin

When a killer tornado hit Joplin, Missouri last month, Jenna Petroff found out about it via Twitter. The Public Relations & Social Media Manager for the Hardee’s chain of restaurants had been holed up working in her St. Louis office and was off the grid to avoid interruptions until she logged onto Twitter.

What caught her attention was a tweet searching for information about a missing young man who worked at a Hardee’s restaurant in Joplin.  Seeing that and learning from Twitter and other sources about the destruction, Petroff and others at Hardee leapt into action.

She described the Hardee’s response to the natural disaster earlier this month at the Realtime NY 11 conference during a panel on corporate social responsibility and real-time social media. It got the audience thinking whether their organizations are prepared.

The death toll from the monster tornado that ripped through the city hit 134, making it the deadliest single tornado in nearly 60 years, according to federal records.

After finding out that two of its three restaurants in Joplin were heavily damaged, Petroff spent several anxious hours checking on Hardee’s employees in the city. Eventually she was able to verify with 100% certainly that all employees were safe and sound, including the person who had been tweeted about.

“The difficulty in this situation is balancing the natural human need to reach out and say ‘Yes, they’re fine. Call him at this number…’ Because you can’t do that. There are privacy concerns,” she said.

Instead, she tweeted out: “All of our #Joplin employees are safe and accounted for. Rangeline re-opened this morning at 7 a.m. Thanks to everyone for your concern.”

Hardee’s already had arranged to donate $25,000 to the Red Cross because so many earlier tornados had affected communities where it operates in Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky and other parts of Missouri. The Joplin storm caused it to re-double its efforts, holding a breakfast sale in its headquarters building in St. Louis with all proceeds donated to the Red Cross as well as two additional fundraisers at all its St. Louis restaurants. Its independent franchise association contributed another $5,000.

While Hardee’s was proud of these efforts, it didn’t want to sound too self-serving. So instead of tweeting about the donations, Petroff asked her friends and partners to tweet a link to a news media report about the Hardee’s contributions.

Social media has been an excellent communications tool for Hardee’s. “The immediacy of the platforms simply allows us access to a greater depth of information and the ability to act and respond quicker,” Petroff says.

Hardee’s uses social media for marketing, advertising, public relations, human resources and guest relations. Petroff says it can raise awareness for products or events; resolve customer service issues; provide value with special offers; increase customer visits; and solidify the brand.

“We use it to listen, gain feedback and spot trends,” she says. “For this one, we used it to say we care. That we are here. And that we will continue to be here to support our communities where we operate.”

What can realtime brands learn from Hardee’s?

  • Monitor social media channels for any mention of your brand–that’s how Petroff first learned about the crisis and its impact on its employees.
  • Follow the old Boy Scout motto of “be prepared” and have an action plan in place.  What’s your disaster preparedness plan?  What role will social media play in communicating with employees and stakeholders?
  • Care for your employees, your customers and your community.  How can you use your company’s resources to add value in an emergency situation?
  • Don’t boast.  If you’ve been nurturing fans and followers, they will spread the goodwill for you.