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Companies Get Plenty of Mileage Out of Post-Hurricane Goodwill Gestures

September 4, 1992

NEW YORK (AP) _ Among the cases of decongestants and antibiotic ointments that Burroughs Wellcome Co. is donating to victims of Hurricane Andrew is one of the company’s blockbuster drugs - AZT, the leading treatment for AIDS.

The pharmaceutical giant is one of hundreds of companies that have rushed to give high-profile products to thousands left in need by the hurricane. In doing so, public relations experts say, the companies are buying invaluable amounts of good will.

″You can’t measure it in dollar terms,″ said Peter van Dernoot, principal of the Denver public relations firm van Dernoot & Associates Inc.

″It takes a sophisticated management to appreciate the long-term benefits of ... what something philanthropic can do,″ van Dernoot said. ″A company and its product will do much better in an environment where they are well received and have a favorable image.″

For Burroughs Wellcome, the donation is an opportunity to extend an olive branch to the AIDS community, which has derided the company over the years for the hefty price it initially assigned to Retrovir, its brand of AZT.

″We are grateful to Burroughs Wellcome for their support,″ said Don Sanderson of the Cure AIDS Now program in Dade County, which is working with the drug maker to coordinate distribution.

Such a coordinated effort seemed impossible just three years ago when AIDS activists stormed Burroughs Wellcome headquarters to protest Retrovir’s $10,000-a-year price. Gradually, however, the cost came down, and the two sides see more room for cooperation now.

Natural disasters, meanwhile, provide a convenient opportunity to build good will by helping those in need. And good will, experts say, is a unique asset in the business world.

″It can’t be stolen by a competitor or outmoded by the Japanese. It is the one asset that is 100 percent proprietary to the company,″ said Clive Chajet, who heads the image consulting firm Lippincott & Margulies Inc.

Good will can also attract investors and infuse a company’s employees with pride.

General Motors Corp., whose factories have been hit by strikes in recent weeks, put $250,000 for hurricane relief efforts into a corporate-employee matching fund.

The move comes against a backdrop of employee unease created by the automaker’s plan to cut nearly 80,000 jobs over the next few years. GM’s gesture, van Dernoot said, might ″make a lot of their remaining employees feel the company has a heart.″

For some companies, the flight to philanthropy has erupted into a kind of competitive frenzy in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. In Homestead, Fla., for example, phone companies competed with each other to give away services.

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