Blogs & Comment

The Fort McMurray fires brought out the best in corporate Canada

Natural disasters can force companies to step up in extraordinary circumstances. The smartest ones find ways to preserve that spirit long-term

Burned-out pickup truck in Fort McMurray’s Beacon Hill neighbourhood

Fort McMurray’s Beacon Hill neighbourhood on May 9, 2016, after fire swept through the city. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

In the early days of the Fort McMurray fire, Suncor Energy’s Facebook page went from a near-abandoned Internet outpost to a crucial communications hub. The oil giant shared the operational status of its facilities, as well as evacuation procedures. Later, there were updates on its efforts to assist escaping residents. Under each notice were dozens of expressions of praise—and even love—for the company. The sentiment is perhaps best summarized by this post: “Big hugs to Suncor.”

This kind of public display of affection for an oil company is, shall we say, rare. It’s also entirely warranted. By all accounts, Suncor reacted to the Alberta disaster with professionalism and humanity. The response to crisis has shown not only the best of Canadians but the best of corporations as well. Airbnb helped co-ordinate emergency housing. WestJet routed additional flights to Fort McMurray to deliver supplies and evacuate hospital patients. Cineplex opened its screenings in Edmonton to displaced residents to provide a welcome distraction. These companies should consider whether such one-off acts of kindness can grow into something more for the future.

Other brands have turned individual charitable deeds into ongoing programs. When New Orleans flooded in 2005, Procter & Gamble—makers of Tide laundry detergent—sent a trailer loaded with 32 washing machines to provide displaced residents with clean clothes. This one-time event evolved into Loads of Hope, a mobile laundromat that has helped 45,000 families in disaster zones across the United States. Duracell, another P&G brand, launched a similar program in 2011, providing batteries and mobile charging stations following a tornado in Tuscaloosa, Ala. These projects are managed by the brand’s marketing team; warm feelings create loyal customers. Since 2012, Labatt Breweries has used its London, Ont., factory for one day each year to produce cans of water, ready to help emergency relief efforts. The company recently shipped 69,000 cans to Fort McMurray, its fourth deployment of the program.

When done properly, a response to a crisis has both short- and long-term benefits, for the company and the community. Following a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, the Ikea Foundation sent 100,000 sleeping bags, towels, school bags and other items to the region. The initiative helped residents while demonstrating Ikea’s commitment to a country in which its sales have grown exponentially in recent years.

In Fort McMurray, oilsands producers like Suncor must wrestle with restarting operations while supporting their workers and communities. But while these companies face challenges, they also have reasons for optimism. Thanks to its humane response to the crisis, Suncor will be very hard to cram back into the caricature of a Big Oil bogeyman. Its actions instead show it’s an employer like any other—concerned for its employees and their town. Suncor, and all other would-be corporate citizens, should consider how to sustain the goodwill that arose from this horrible situation.