The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC put many PR
plans on hold, and the amount of coverage devoted to the incidents has
left agencies wondering how to approach the media, if at all. David Ward
While the attention of the American public continues to focus on the
tragic September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,
PR firms and their clients are quietly assessing how to proceed with the
media given the change in circumstances.
In the short term, PR professionals acknowledge that reaching out to the
media will be a tough job. Not only will the bulk of news coverage be
focused on the tragedy, but other news and developments not directly
tied to the tragedy will seem much less important to journalists.
Most PR people agree that no event - not Oklahoma City, not the 1989 Bay
Area earthquake, and not even the 1963 assassination of President John
F. Kennedy - matches the magnitude of September 11.
"Even when talking about something like Pearl Harbor, you can't do a
comparison because you're not dealing with the same media environment
today," says PainePR founder David Paine. "This is an unprecedented
I don't think there's anybody in our current generation of practitioners
who can speak to what the consequences will be for clients over the next
30 to 60 days."
"The media is like everyone else," notes Fred Cook, Golin/Harris
managing director, Western region. "It's very difficult to focus on the
more mundane aspects of their jobs when there's this crisis playing
And no one knows quite how long these terrorist attacks will dominate
the news cycle. When PainePR analyzed the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma
City federal building, it found that coverage peaked the third day after
the event, and didn't significantly drop off until about two weeks
After one month, coverage was off 70% from its peak, but that still
meant it was taking up a huge portion of the available news hole.
Few people know what the coming weeks will bring in terms of media
Already, there are indications that the economy is entering a period of
unparalleled turbulence as airlines, financial companies, and leisure
firms all struggle to deal with the aftermath.
There's also the looming prospect of war. "Are we going to have a media
climate where CNN is going to regularly break in with reports of rocket
attacks against other nations? And how are companies going to operate in
that climate?" asks Paine.
The media melange
In times of crisis, the public inevitably turns to major national
broadcast networks NBC, CBS, and ABC, as well as cable outlets such as
CNN, while major print publications like Time, Newsweek, The New York
Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times provide analysis
and perspective going forward.
But gone are the days when the nation as a whole turned to a single news
icon like CBS anchor Walter Cronkite for reassurance in troubled
Now there is an ever-changing mix of journalists in the national
spotlight, including author and New York Times Middle Eastern specialist
Thomas Friedman and CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, who interviewed
Osama bin Laden in 1997.
In the days following the tragedy, some agencies took the direct
approach, and discreetly and respectfully sounded out journalists to
find out exactly what they did and didn't want from PR execs in the
short term. "The media was saying, 'Don't come at us and pitch; don't be
your normal proactive, aggressive selves unless your client is relevant
to this horrible tragedy,'" says Bill Meyers, co-general manager at the
San Francisco office of Blanc & Otus.
Fortunately for Meyers, Blanc & Otus had two clients that the media was
interested in: Hotwire (an online travel website) and Identix (a
biometrics company with fingerprint and airport security technology).
Both got calls from reporters almost immediately after the plane
"We had long sessions about how to respond to queries," says Meyers. "We
counseled Identix that this was not a branding effort. You're there
strictly as a resource and commentator to help make sense of this."
Back to business
Despite the magnitude of the attacks, by the Friday of that week,
non-related news stories began to appear in the back pages of some
newspapers as journalists not directly covering the tragedy once again
began accepting pitches. "We're finding that trade journalists are going
back to business as usual much more quickly than some of the
general-interest reporters," notes Jon Haber, SVP/partner with
Fleishman-Hillard's Washington, DC office.
But in many ways, the traditional rules of media relations are out the
window for the time being. "Our counsel is really to have your ear to
the ground," says Kim Kumiega, GM of crisis and issues management for
Edelman's Chicago office. "Media departments have to be monitoring
coverage on a day-by-day basis. We have to let our clients know that
even The Wall Street Journal isn't where you think The Wall Street
Changing with the times
Kumiega also suggests that every PR firm and their clients reevaluate
any and all upcoming messages for appropriateness. "It's not just the
mood...but the language that you might use," she adds. "Even words like
'assault' or 'hijack.' We really have to scan what we've written to make
sure that nothing is offensive moving forward."
For some companies, the events of September 11 dramatically altered
their corporate plans. PainePR client XM Radio made a $1 billion
investments in placing two satellites in orbit, and was to set to
formally roll-out its satellite radio service on September 12 with media
events in Washington, DC and San Diego. They are now on hold
indefinitely, but Paine adds, "They've got to launch their company, and
they know that."
Both advertising and PR are going to play a key role in XM Radio's
launch, but the tone is being adjusted. Billboards carrying the image of
music records flying through the air above the tagline "Incoming" are
being redone. "They understood that immediately," says Paine. "They'll
be making substantial changes in their campaign - both print and
broadcast - going forward."
That situation is likely to be repeated by marketing and advertising
departments around the US, as well as internationally. Cook says
Golin/Harris is already working with clients on changing their holiday
marketing and PR messages. "This event changes the tone and the feel of
the holiday season in a big way," he says. "Anything that's overtly
commercial is not going to be well received by either the media or by