On Monday morning, Sept. 11, I received the call. The day before, Category 4 Hurricane Irma had passed directly over the Lower Florida Keys, sideswiping South Florida and sweeping up the state.

I was loading our car – we had evacuated Miami to a Fort Lauderdale hotel – to head home to see what mischief Irma had wrought.

Andy Newman of our agency and Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi were on the line. Roman wanted NewmanPR – which has represented the Monroe County tourism council for nearly four decades – to create a “Keys Recovery” website. The site would serve as a post-hurricane communications resource for Florida Keys residents and Irma victims. And Roman wanted it NOW!

Andy asked if we could do it. “Of course!” I said enthusiastically, silently wondering how we’d do it.

Back in Miami, my home had no electricity, but was undamaged, so I went to assess NewmanPR’s office. While our offices were dark, the third floor of the building had emergency power.

First, I activated our West Coast-based blog production team to start work on a WordPress site build.

Next, we needed a domain name; Monroe County wanted KeysRecovery.com.

But that domain had been purchased — that very morning — on GoDaddy.com for $11.99 by an outfit called HugeDomains.com. The Denver-based company buys domain names speculatively, seeking to cash in when demand for a website name rises.

Usually, squatters buy most of the common iterations of a domain, but Huge Domains apparently had overlooked both keysrecovery.org and keysrecovery.net, so we secured them.

Monroe County leaders still preferred keysrecovery.com, so I sent a message to Huge Domains, explaining that this was to be a public service site in the wake of Hurricane Irma, and offering $200 for the domain.

Key Largo, the Upper Keys and Key West had fared better than Marathon, Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys, where the eye of the storm had passed, and damage was extensive.

Cell service was nonexistent throughout the Keys, and the best hope for establishing communications across the island chain was the website, which residents could access via satellite from a mobile device.

Tuesday, Nov. 12, 12:31 p.m. Huge Domains was still trying to capitalize on the Keys’ misfortune.

Hi Buck,

Thank you for submitting your offer of $200 on KeysRecovery.com. Our current asking price for the domain is $2,695 and the best and lowest price we are able to accept is $2,595.

We also have the option to allow you purchase [sic] the domain using a payment plan of up to 12 months to help make the purchase more manageable. ….

We have updated the buy it now price online and this special discount will only be valid for 3 days.

That was a slap in the face ….

3:08 p.m. I received permission to raise our ante and wrote:

We are happy to meet your counteroffer with one of our own: $500. We believe that is a more-than-fair price for the URL, and provides HugeDomains.com with a handsome profit while showing some compassion for the people of Monroe County.

5:14 p.m. The squatters responded – with much gratitude, but little punctuation:

Hello,

Thank you for the offer however at this time we are unable to accept!

Thank you
Natalie
HugeDomains Support

Monroe County leadership insisted we push harder to secure keysrecovery.com.

5:46 p.m. I replied:

Hello Natalie:

We are willing to pay the original $2,000 that was listed on the GoDaddy website this morning. I can provide a credit card number immediately to complete the transaction, but we cannot pay more than $2,000.

Let me know as soon as you can whether you accept the offer.

We had hit the limit of what Monroe County was prepared to pay. NewmanPR’s blog team went ahead and activated the website using the keysrecovery.org domain.

The following day, Sept. 13, we had 350 visits to the site. From Huge Domains — radio silence.

Thursday, Sept. 14. Huge Domains replied:

Hi Buck,

My apologies for the delays, I had to run your offer past the owners of the company and in the interest of all partied [sic] involved they have agreed to let you have the domain for $2000. We have updated the price of the domain online and you can use this link to purchase the domain:

http://www.hugedomains.com/domain_profile.cfm?d=KeysRecovery&e=com

Thank you,

Patrick
HugeDomains Customer Support

That day keysrecovery.org received more than 86,000 visits.

Obviously, we didn’t need keysrecovery.com. However, in the interest of fair play — and because at this point the negotiations were mildly entertaining — we countered.

Hello Patrick:

We managed to find an alternative way to meet our immediate emergency needs yesterday regarding establishing a domain name for Florida Keys post-hurricane recovery efforts.

However, in the interest of protecting our current domain assets, we will honor our original offer of $200 for keysrecovery.com.

Please let me know if this, our final offer, is acceptable.

Later that day they replied:

Hi Buck,

We are going to hold firm at $2000.

Thank you,

Ryan
HugeDomains Support

I didn’t respond, but Huge Domains wasn’t finished.

Wednesday, Sept. 20 — when we tallied 20,000 visits to keysrecovery.org — the squatters wrote again:

Hello Buck,

You recently inquired about KeysRecovery.com, and we wanted to reach out to ensure all of your questions had been thoroughly answered. If you still have questions regarding the purchase process of the domain name, please let us know!

My only question was, “How angry are your owners about the way you mishandled this negotiation?” I didn’t respond.

Wednesday, Oct. 4 — a day we saw more than 5,000 visits to keysrecovery.org — Huge Domains wrote again:

You recently inquired about KeysRecovery.com, and we wanted to reach out to ensure all of your questions had been thoroughly answered. If you still have questions regarding the purchase process of the domain name, please let us know!

I did the math, and the new offer was $1,347.48 over 12 months. I did not have any questions.

Saturday, Oct. 28: Huge Domains sent another offer:

As you know, KeysRecovery.com is unique and the only one of its kind, so don’t miss your opportunity to own this .com domain name! Act quickly, before the opportunity passes you by. For a limited time, we are extending $200.00 off the price of this domain name!

The new deal, at $83.20 a month, came to $997.44. We passed.

Wednesday, Dec. 6: HugeDomains.com still had keysrecovery.com listed for $1,995.

Monday, Dec. 11: To date, keysrecovery.org has logged 641,347 visits and served up 1,145,227 pages. Not bad for a $12 .org domain.

Now, Huge Domains could be considered evil because it attempted to extract a massive profit from a natural disaster. However, there is no question the company couldn’t negotiate. Huge Domains could have earned a profit of 167 times its $12 investment in keysrecovery.com from our offer of $2,000, but through arrogance and greed, it blew that chance.

NewmanPR, on the other hand, through the keysrecovery.org domain, helped thousands of Monroe County residents and Hurricane Irma victims access crucial information when it was needed the most.

For us, that kind of public relations feels pretty good — it’s true public service.

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