ANALYSIS: Crisis communications - The readiness is all: how the RedCross responded

The attacks on America took remarkable planning and coordination -

and so did the collection and distribution of aid and support. Allen

Houston looks at how the Red Cross was ready to help.

Days into the tragedy that forever changed America, 30-year-old Darren

Irby, chief officer of disaster communications for the Red Cross,

stepped away from his desk after hours spent fielding media calls. Irby,

who was only away from his office for five minutes, returned to find 17

voice-mails waiting for him, including messages from the Today show,

Oprah, and People magazine. It's all Irby need say to illustrate the

amount of media attention that has been showered on the Red Cross in the

wake of the terrorist attacks on America.

"All of us at the Red Cross realize how important this story is," says

Irby. "From the beginning, we realized the importance of communicating

our message to the public."

There's no question as to why the Red Cross became the preeminent aid

agency that people donated to during this crisis: the group's history as

a disaster-relief organization put it in a prime position to be the

source that the media and public turned to for information about

donating money, blood, and other services.

As for the media attention lavished on the group, a better question

would be, who didn't cover the efforts of the Red Cross as it collected

money, encouraged blood donation, and attempted to bolster volunteering

at its 1,000 nationwide chapters? The New York Times alone mentioned the

Red Cross 40 times during the month of September.

However, this doesn't mean that it's all been smooth sailing for the

organization. A month before the disaster, a Red Cross insider

complained that the group's PR was "stuck in a rut," and that media

outreach was more or less always a "blood drive" pitch.

Prepared for action

It was a recent addition to the group's communications efforts that

prepared the Red Cross for the catastrophic event that occurred, and

made it stand out from other nonprofits. A year and a half ago, the Red

Cross expanded its communications plans to include training about such

subjects as school shootings and weapons of mass destruction - topics

that included terrorism.

The Red Cross deployed its specially trained 35-member rapid response

team to the World Trade Center within half an hour of the first plane

crash. Its mission was to get to the site and work with the media to

tell people what was happening and what they could do to help.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross called in a 65-member volunteer force

(comprised of PR people) to offices in New York, Washington, DC, and

Pennsylvania to help with media calls that were swamping its


As part of the effort to establish its control, Red Cross spokespeople

appeared on a constant stream of news and morning TV programs, such as

the Today show and Good Morning America, asking for blood donations. The

spokespeople encouraged those who couldn't give blood to call

1-800-HELP-NOW and make a financial donation.

The Red Cross also tapped into a vein of PR people that lined up to help

with the overload of attention focused on the group. Hundreds of PR

practitioners called to find out what they could do, and the PRSA put

out a call to its members to suggest ways that it could help the Red


"We had an unbelievable outpouring from our membership," says Catherine

Bolton, executive director and chief operating officer of the PRSA. "It

was our way of helping, and also using the skills unique to the PR


(This effort was so successful that the Red Cross will provide crisis

training to interested PRSA members at the PRSA's International

Conference, running October 27-30.)

And while the special response team and PR volunteers played a major

part in helping to communicate the Red Cross' message, it also didn't

hurt that the President of the United States is the honorary chairman of

the organization. Since the tragedy, President Bush has recommended that

citizens donate money to the Red Cross on at least three occasions.

It's a tradition that dates back to President Roosevelt, who asked the

children of America to donate or earn a dime to help stomp out


This is the impetus for President Bush's creation of America's Fund for

Afghan Children, for which he asked American children to each contribute

$1 to relief efforts for Afghan children.

Keeping the message consistent

As the disaster response team dolled out information about mental health

services and shelters, the hardest challenge for the Red Cross

communications team was learning how to mix external and internal

communications with the 1,000 local chapters so that they could have the

most up-to-date information to provide to the local media. This proved

extremely difficult, especially when the Red Cross was trying to

pinpoint who'd been affected by the tragedy.

Another area that gave the Red Cross a boost over other nonprofits was

its blood donation service. Volunteers hit the streets of New York after

the attack to hang fliers encouraging citizens to donate blood. Many

centers extended their hours of operation, and sent extra blood bank

vehicles out to collect donations. The group's latest blood

communication campaign is to convince first-time volunteers to give

blood again. The Red Cross will make phone calls to those who gave blood

for the first time, and will also mail out letters and talk with the


"We're starting the campaign now so that we've got enough blood for the

upcoming winter months, when donations are low," says Dawn Marks of the

Red Cross' biomedical services' media relations department.

Equally as important as the blood donation message has been the effort

to raise money for the victims' families. Devorah Goldberg, in charge of

fundraising communications for the Red Cross, has been the one answering

questions about where the $451 million the Red Cross has

collected will go. Much of that money came from events she coordinated,

such as Dine Out America, in which 8,000 participating restaurants gave

50-100% of profits for one night to the Red Cross.

In addition to writing a release about Dine Out America that could be

localized for Red Cross chapters to contact reporters about the

campaign, Goldberg also coordinated events with corporations that were

interested in using the Red Cross logo to help raise money. Within hours

of the attack, for example, she worked out a deal that allowed to put up a direct donation link on its home page. Within 24

hours, the e-commerce site raised $1 million.

Traditional PR in a modern era

Goldberg believes that the Red Cross' success is a result of relying on

traditional PR principles.

"When an emergency arose, we got out there and made things happen," says

Goldberg. "People were looking for someone to provide humanitarian

information about what they could do, and we were trained to deliver


The mission hasn't changed. "Every single American was touched by what

happened," says Irby, "and we we're trying to manage and provide enough

communications and healthcare services so that the public is up to


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in