Within 24 hours of the Laguna Beach fire, the Orange County association of architects had sent a newsletter to its members suggesting proper behavior.
Don't give out your business card. Don't sign up fire victims for promotional mailers. Don't make follow-up calls to people you meet while volunteering at relief centers.
"Disaster is not a marketing opportunity," said Linda Taylor, president of the Orange County chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Selling services during any disaster is a tricky business. For a company or organization that wants to polish its image with a show of generosity, the danger looms that it will appear shamelessly self-promoting.
"There's a desire to get out right away and do something, but it's loaded with pitfalls," said David Paine, president of Paine & Associates in Costa Mesa.
"An idea can look good today but turn out to be a bad idea tomorrow," said Paine, whose public relations firm counsels some corporate clients about making their donations count.
"During Hurricane Andrew, companies donated food, and it ended up rotting in trailers," he said. "It was well-intentioned, but it wasn't really needed."
Others' motives may be less lofty. News reports told of architects and others--contractors, insurance adjusters, cleanup specialists--who besieged residents of burned-out Emerald Bay. And Laguna Beach police have made half a dozen arrests of false advertisers and contractors working without licenses, one officer told the Mystic Hills Homeowners Assn.
To guard against fraud, the association has begun inviting salespeople whose credentials check out to visit its weekly meetings. Speakers must pay a fee to make a pitch: $500 for two minutes and $1,000 for five minutes.
"It's an infomercial," said David Horne, association president and a professor of marketing at Cal State Long Beach.
The group has had no takers yet.
A number of companies sought ways to help fire victims by making donations to a relief fund, the local fire department or a charity. Others looked for volunteer opportunities for their employees.
Paine said he is working with three such clients, all of which are hoping that their donations will bring a recognition from the community that they are good corporate citizens.
He advises clients first that their contributions should make sense for the type of business they're in. For example, Arrowhead, the bottled water distributor, was on hand in Laguna Beach to quench firefighters' thirst.
But unless the need for such a contribution is immediately obvious, Paine said, companies should take two to three weeks to research community needs before acting.
Volunteers who came forward quickly to help reseed denuded Laguna hillsides found themselves caught in a political dispute between county and city officials.
"It looked like the issue of reseeding was a good opportunity at first," Paine said. "There was an opportunity for employees to participate, to lay down hay and burlap. But it turned out to be a bad idea, with the rain and the mud. It was pretty obvious you didn't want people without expertise working on the hillside."
If a contribution is well thought out, then $10,000 to $25,000 can make a big difference, Paine said. But merely writing a check does not ensure that the gesture will be noticed.
Paine said he had clients make $250,000 donations to relief efforts without receiving any public acknowledgment.
"If you're seeking recognition, you have to make sure your donation is genuinely in the public interest and not a publicity stunt," he said. "The vast majority who sought recognition that way have felt disappointed."
Other public relations professionals take a different view.
Laer Pearce, owner of an Irvine firm that bears his name, said that, no matter how thoughtfully they proceed, companies should never seek publicity as a result of disaster.
"We counsel our clients to give as a corporate philosophy and not as a publicity tool," said Pearce, who represents a number of Orange County real estate developers. "If word gets out, that's good. But if people find out about it because of a staged news event, then the company is going to meet with some resistance."
He said he even advised one client to forgo a donation on behalf of fire victims. Larry Webb, president of Greystone Homes, has been making donations for years to Interventional House, a service for battered or displaced women.
Webb asked whether he should funnel his money for this year to fire victims instead, Pearce said. "I told him, no, that the Interventional House donation was serving his purpose very well," Pearce said.
Joan Gladstone, president of the Irvine-based public relations firm Gladstone International, agreed with Pearce that donations should be low-key and non-publicized. The exception, she said, is when the charity might benefit from the publicity.
"Sometimes it encourages other corporations to do the same," she said.
That choice should be made by the organization that receives the gift, Gladstone said. "If it comes from the organization, it helps remove any taint of self-promotion."
The Orange County chapter of the American Red Cross regularly sends out lists of donors for publication in newspapers, said Judy Iannaccone, director of public affairs.
So far, the Red Cross has received $345,500 from 42 corporations for Orange County fire relief. Also, a donation of $250,000 was made by the Irvine Co. for general purposes, Iannaccone said, and an additional 76 companies have given gifts such as blankets, hardware and food.
Some companies prefer to donate anonymously to the Red Cross.
"There are people who are really driven by a concern for the welfare of the community," Iannaccone said. Others give without fanfare, she said, because they "don't want to be besieged by requests for donations."