ANALYSIS: Profile - Disaster shows media expertise of hospital PRchief

Dark tragedy often allows bright lights to shine - like Mark

Ackermann, spokesman for New York's Saint Vincent's Hospital. When

disaster struck, he kept a city - and nation - well informed.



Back at work six days after the terrorist attacks on New York, Saint

Vincent's Hospital spokesman Mark Ackermann thought the crowds of

journalists outside might have abated. They had not.



Saint Vincent's - the trauma hospital closest to the World Trade

Center - had become a rallying point for both journalists seeking out

Ackermann's briefings and victims' families, hopeful of some positive

news. Neither party wanted to give up.



Ackermann is the hospital's SVP and chief corporate officer charged with

relaying information about patients, their injuries, and their numbers.

He battled his way to work on Tuesday, September 11 after New Jersey was

sealed off from Manhattan.



As the size of the disaster became apparent, Ackermann braced himself

for the arrival of around 1,000 patients, and began briefing the media

every half hour as the injured were brought in. At first, some 250

patients streamed through the doors, and the hospital runners raced to

pass their names, addresses, and injuries from the triage doctors to the

hospital registrar, and finally to Ackermann. "I knew constantly about

80-90 patients and how many were emergency workers," he says. "Then the

ambulances stopped coming."



Ackermann's briefings became hourly, and he was joined in front of the

cameras by both Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki. With TV stations

struggling for updates, Ackermann's briefings were broadcast live

between repeated shots of the blazing towers and the smoking Pentagon.

"It wasn't until several days later that I realized I was doing all

these briefings live," he says. "I thought I was being videotaped."



Ackermann set up his podium across the street from the hospital to

enable officials and ambulances to arrive undisturbed, while giving the

camera crews good visuals. "The things that were on my mind were

maintaining my own composure to give a sense of calm, and that we were

prepared and here to serve."



So busy was Ackermann that he didn't even see footage of the planes

crashing into the World Trade Center until two days later. And

unfortunately, it isn't the first time he's seen disaster strike at that

location.



A 19-year veteran of the hospital, Ackermann was around to see patients

from the 1993 bombing. "Back then, the magnitude was much less. This

time it was 900 patients in the last six days. Then we saw 200."



Back then, Ackermann says a decision was made in the aftermath of the

1993 incident that if disaster struck again, he would do formal press

briefings.



While other hospitals were allowing cameras inside, Ackermann decided to

draw the line. "We firmly believe patient privacy is sacrosanct. I have

received some criticism for that."



As the week wore on, Ackermann altered the main themes of his press

briefings. "We wanted to help calm people. We weren't running out of

blood, but we wanted to point people toward a human-interest story: the

800 people lined up outside to donate blood. Kathleen Turner even came

down."



Working closely with his team of three and Dan Klores Communications

staff, Ackermann says they discussed other message points: "The

importance of talking to children and helping parents look after them.

We started talking about the work of other agencies, and the need for

people to give blood next week."



When asked what advice he would give other PR people in a similar

situation, Ackermann said, "Because we've had so many disasters, we have

a good plan. Everyone knows the information goes to one place and to one

person."



As the week closed, Ackermann realized the enormity of the events he had

been dealing with. "I'm overwhelmed now. On Friday, I had 15 minutes to

go back to my office to read e-mails, and I broke down. The human side

comes out in the midst of so many lives lost."



Ackermann is no doubt relieved to return to his position as a

little-known hospital spokesman. "A good plan and a good team was really

key to what I was able to do," he says. "God willing, we'll never have

to go through anything like this again."



His PR objectives met, Ackermann is understandably downbeat about the

circumstances. "In a sad way, Saint Vincent's got some recognition. I

wish it could have been another way."



MARK ACKERMANN

1983: Joins as director of resource development for Saint Vincent's

Catholic Medical Centers of New York

1988: VP responsible for public affairs, marketing, and strategic

planning

1990: SVP and assistant to the president

1993: SVP for clinical affairs

Present: SVP and chief corporate affairs officer



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.