Kathy Baughman, president of HLB Communications, maintains an office in Chicago's John Hancock Center, one of the many landmarks evacuated on September 11. While driving home, she received a call from Stephen Ban, SVP of marketing communications at Aon, a global conglomerate specializing in insurance, risk management, and human resource consulting.
Aon occupied nine floors near the top of the World Trade Center's south tower. It also used the building as a communications hub for its operations in the Northeast. Ban had a crisis plan in place, but like all crisis plans, it wasn't equipped to deal with one of this magnitude.
"Kathy, Ban said, "I'm going to need your help."
Baughman immediately told Ban to commandeer Aon.com.
"It's already done, he replied. In what turned out to be a fortuitous move, Aon had launched a redesigned, easier-to-update website on August 30.
"We relied on the site, says Baughman, "as we knew there would be a lot of information we had to share - in real time - with many different stakeholders."
While the company tried to account for its New York workforce, it also had to reach out to its employees in other locations, and provide updates to customers, suppliers, the media, and the worldwide financial markets.
Because of the delicate nature of the circumstances - and despite the chaos that reigned in the hours and days following the attacks - it was essential that every message be correct.
When the final toll was confirmed, Aon had lost 175 employees. Until then, Baughman says, "the last thing you'd want is to communicate something to someone's loved one, only to have it turn out inaccurate."
Working with Aon's financial auditors, Ban's team created a methodology for guaranteeing the veracity of the content posted on Aon.com. "We established that it was crucial that we not give out any information that had not been verified two separate times, he explains.
The next step was to ensure that Aon's audience knew where to go for the latest developments. "Within 24 hours, says, Baughman, "we had taken out ads driving people to the website. The spots appeared in titles ranging from The New York Times to the Bergen Record to the Spanish-language dailies El Diario and Hoy. In order to provide reporters with the answers they needed, Elizabeth Wiener & Associates was called in to assist with media relations.
By the time the month was out, Aon.com had registered 386,000 visitors - more than triple its monthly average - and fielded a total of 1,400 e-mail inquiries.
Thanks to the system it had put in place, Aon was able to measure the precision of its communications efforts; Baughman claims the company scored close to 90% when its messages were rechecked for accuracy. But the most important achievement was something impossible to quantify. "We were able to sensitively handle an unprecedented situation, says Baughman, "and communicate in a way that provided support for employees, instilled confidence in the company, and helped them withstand the tragedy."
"The biggest thing we took away from this experience, says Ban, "is that in a big organization like ours, you need to take some time to ensure that the crisis plans of each of the individual business units are integrated with one another. What we're focused on now is making sure that the various pieces are highly coordinated in how they respond."
Client: Aon (Chicago)
PR Team: In-house, with HLB Communications and Elizabeth Wiener &
Campaign: Response to the WTC tragedy
Time Frame: September 11, 2001-October 1, 2001
Budget: Approx. $1,000,000