Post-9/11 criticism forced nonprofits to rethink PR strategy

Post-9/11 criticism forced nonprofits to rethink PR strategy

No single day has ever asked so much of America's nonprofits as did September 11, 2001. Groups more accustomed to dealing with floods and hurricanes were called upon to feed, clothe, rescue, and counsel victims of violence rather than victims of nature - all the while processing donations that made their wildest budgetary dreams seem modest. But an initial outpouring of gratitude for groups like the Red Cross quickly turned ugly. The organization's inability to communicate clearly with donors and the public about where the money was going bred confusion, anger, and outrage - emotions rarely aimed at a charity. A year later, the Red Cross and other American nonprofits are taking a hard look at their PR functions. Some have realized their continued existence depends on doing it better. "Some people criticized us for not being as up front as we could be about where their donation was going," says Darren Irby, director of external communications at the Red Cross, "so we took a real hard look, and our commitment now is to be the leader in transparency and accountability." To date, the Red Cross has taken in nearly $1 billion for the victims of September 11. Originally, it planned to do with that money what it did with all donations dedicated to a specific disaster: Apply as much to it as necessary, then sink any leftover donations into its national disaster relief fund. But with more people than ever giving money, this normally little-noticed practice became the stuff of national headlines. Donors felt ripped off. They had given money to the victims of September 11, and they wanted those victims to get the money. The complaints grew so loud, Congress asked a number of charitable organizations to explain their practices, and the Red Cross lost its CEO. Behind it was no intent to deceive or mislead the public - only unclear messages. "We learned that our messages have to be brief and brilliant," says Irby. "From the onset, so much was going on. So many things were changing very rapidly, that sometimes our messages conflicted with one another. Sometimes they were just too long." Helping donors understand charity Now, when donors give money to the Red Cross, they are greeted by clear, simple statements telling them where their money will go before they ever part with it. Rather than donating funds toward a specific relief effort, they are encouraged to give directly to the national disaster relief fund so the Red Cross can have more say over how the money is spent. Why? Because perhaps the greatest lesson to come out of the days following September 11, says Irby, is that Americans simply don't understand the work charities do. "We learned that a lot of people don't know what they can expect from the Red Cross, but even more generally, how charitable organizations actually work," Irby says. The public and the media concentrated so heavily on the money being given to the families, he believes, that they never heard about shop owners, rescue workers, and displaced locals receiving assistance. If the public understood that, he says, perhaps the outcry would have been less severe. "We had to take a step back and refigure our communications to remind the American public that it wasn't just about the family members. It was about the people who lost their homes, rescue workers, and people who were economically impacted. It was about the 90-year-old in Memphis who called and said, 'I need to talk to a worker because I don't know what to say to my granddaughter who has nightmares about planes crashing into buildings.'" To prevent a repeat of the post-September-11 furor, Irby talks about recruiting more third parties to speak for the organization, and better cross-training of volunteers. "We were being criticized so heavily, it didn't really matter what the Red Cross said," he says. "It really helped to have some third parties say, 'What they're doing makes sense.'" The Salvation Army, a group whose mission is similar to that of the Red Cross, is also taking steps to refine its PR function in the aftermath of September 11. The Salvation Army was on the scene that day alongside the Red Cross, feeding, counseling, and supporting the rescue workers within minutes of the first explosions. Much like its counterpart, the Salvation Army realizes now more than ever that the public has a limited understanding of its mission. "I don't think most people have a good idea of who the Salvation Army is and the things we do," says Lt. Col. Tom Jones, national community relations and development secretary. "I think sometimes people think we mushroom out of the ground with a kettle and a bell on Christmas and go back to sleep on Groundhog Day." Allocating volunteers to PR in a crisis Looking back now, Jones has just one regret regarding his organization's response that morning: putting too many volunteers on-site and not enough on the phone. "We don't do a whole lot of PR, and we learned we need to be better prepared there and probably devote some of our officers to that rather than be on the front lines," he says. Jones is one of only two people at the Salvation Army squarely focused on PR, and even his position encompasses much more than that. When the group does need people to man the phones, it pulls volunteers from one of its 9,000 national offices - volunteers with minimal training or experience handling the press. Jones says the massive influx of media inquiries on and immediately after September 11 proved to be too much. They hope to correct that by training more volunteers for PR work, and devoting more to it during a crisis. "Often the Army rushes in to help, and we don't allocate people to raise money and do PR," he says. "I think we're learning through this disaster and a few others before it that we probably have to do that, because as you can imagine, with hundreds of thousands of calls from media wanting instant answers and each one with his own angle and his own story, we don't have enough people to do that." It's a testament to the strange impact of that day to hear a Salvation Army officer say, "Instead of sending a trained officer to a counseling center, if he has skills in dealing with the public and the media, put him in an office answering phones." The reverberations are being felt by charities that bear little resemblance to the Red Cross or Salvation Army. "I think what happened to the Red Cross, all nonprofits can learn from," says Beverly Butler, VP of marketing and communications for the California division of the American Cancer Society. Following September 11, the American Cancer Society conducted a communications audit of all external relations - quite an undertaking for a $700 million organization with over 3,400 national outposts. And it didn't stop there: The national headquarters is encouraging each division to do its own audit. Butler is about to begin hers in the California division. Changes regarding volunteers are being made as well. Greater emphasis is being put on manning the phones with people who know how to handle the media in a crisis - and in making sure those lines of communication stay open. They're also taking extra steps to keep the volunteers themselves safe. "September 11 made us realize that the safety of our volunteers and staff needed to come first, and we made sure that we did have procedures in place to make sure they were safe," says Butler. Collecting emergency information for volunteers is now standard, as is considering volunteers' preferences before asking them to fly. With so much more attention being paid to communication at nonprofits, there may be reason to be thankful for the Red Cross fallout. "I think the American public is learning what happens to that $20 they drop in the bucket at Eddie Bauer," chuckles Irby. Ultimately, however, whether other charities walk away having learned as much is up to them. "All we can do is be a leader in responding to the lessons we learned, and hope that other nonprofits will learn from that." ----------- Approaching September 11 comparisons with caution Americans gave in record numbers after last year's attacks, and the subsequent War on Terror is one of the costliest operations in American memory. Some charities are succumbing to the urge to point out that their causes, treated to even a portion of those funds, could be turned around practically overnight. Others say it's a temptation worth resisting. "We have to be very careful about September 11," says the head of PR for a major AIDS fund. "I couldn't say this, and I never would say this, but 6,000 people a day die of AIDS. Three thousand died on September 11. If I could get people to be as emotional about AIDS as September 11, we could end the worst pandemic we've ever seen. But I would never allow such comparisons to be made." That isn't stopping others, however. In recent speeches, former President Bill Clinton has compared America's financial commitment to stopping AIDS to the money it spends on fighting terrorism, and even tried to link the two causes. At a recent AIDS conference in Barcelona, he called upon the current administration to spend "$2 billion more, or less than two months of the Afghan war, less than 3% of the requested increases for defense and homeland defense in the current budget" to fight the disease. He has also said, "I'm all for fighting in Afghanistan.. but no one believes that we can build a safe world just by preventing and punishing bad things." "You just can't do that," says the AIDS spokesperson. "The emotional baggage and the emotional issues are just so different. You have to be very careful how you approach those kinds of statistics."

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