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
Amazon.com 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