ANALYSIS: Client Profile - The Red Cross faces disaster undaunted Public awareness and an easily recognized logo can help to keep a nonprofit afloat. But when your business is saving lives, constant reinforcement is vital. Matthew Arnold reports.

The American Red Cross faces a problem shared by many older, larger nonprofits with comfortable budgets and high name recognition. It gets taken for granted.

The American Red Cross faces a problem shared by many older, larger nonprofits with comfortable budgets and high name recognition. It gets taken for granted.

The American Red Cross faces a problem shared by many older, larger nonprofits with comfortable budgets and high name recognition. It gets taken for granted.

That's a challenge for any organization, but for the ARC, which collects the nation's blood supply, it can become a matter of life or death.

Every summer, and again every winter, blood banks dry up as schools and colleges let out, depriving the ARC of its most reliable donor group - students. Because the demand for blood is increasing, due in part to recent medical advances - such as organ transplants and chemotherapy - that require frequent blood transfusions, what was once a seasonal scramble for donors is becoming a year-round crisis.

'People understand that giving blood is saving someone's life, but they underestimate the need for it,' says Sarah Evers, manager of external communications for the ARC's biomedical services division.

The organization, funded mostly through private donations, estimates that around 5% of Americans eligible to donate blood do so. Of those, the ARC sees 4.5 million, but it's not enough.

'Right now, we hear a lot of people say, 'Oh, you're calling on a blood shortage again,' explains Evers. 'People don't understand that we can't just stock up for blood shortages because blood is human tissue. It doesn't have a very long shelf life. So reinforcing that message throughout the year helps let people know that it's not just for car accidents.'

The lifeblood of PR

The organization has no agency of record. Instead, the bulk of its PR needs are handled in-house by its Washington, DC-based communications and marketing department, which boasts a staff of 93 and an annual budget of dollars 8.7 million. The department has its own production house and graphic design studio, capable of turning out broadcast or print PSAs and VNRs on short notice.

In September, the ARC used Cohn & Wolfe to help battle record lows in the nation's blood supply. It showcased an emotive Nancy Polhamus, the mother of a young boy who had required 26 units of blood following a bicycle accident.

'By issuing calls to action with these graphic examples, we're really putting a human face on it,' says Evers. 'To bring that patient's story to potential blood donors is powerful, because people don't know where their blood might go.'

The press conference is a staple of ARC's media strategy. Because of the broad human-interest pull of its stories, ARC press conferences routinely draw national coverage.

In March, the ARC held a press conference to publicize the results of a poll it had commissioned from Bruskin Audits & Surveys Worldwide showing that public confidence in the nation's blood supply was very high, even as the nation's blood supply continued to slide. The poll found that 76% of Americans expected that blood would be available to them should they need it, though 72% underestimated the demand and 70% didn't know how long blood could be safely stored.

The September press conference, held on Capitol Hill, featured ARC CEO Dr. Bernadine Healy, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) and Congressman Fred Upton (R-Michigan), and was followed by a media tour.

In addition to blood collection and storage, the ARC also responds to 60,000 natural disasters each year, the latest being the Singapore Airlines crash in Taiwan. To coordinate media and PR efforts during natural disasters, the group keeps 900 volunteers on call. These volunteers, including retirees and students as well as working journalists and PR pros, agree to perform media relations at natural disasters for two to three weeks each year.

'The Red Cross is there with a strong message of preparedness, and then we're there with them every second of the way as they begin their disaster recovery,' says disaster communications officer Darren Irby. 'We have to make sure we are all speaking with the same voice and that the disaster victim is always at the top of our minds. The information we provide has to be accurate, timely and compassionate, and the pressure is on our staff to make sure our information is right in each of those areas.'

For major disasters, which average 500 per year, a 'rapid response' team of the ARC's most seasoned communicators is sent into action. Team members agree to spend several months each year on call. When tapped, they must be on a plane headed to the disaster site within four hours. This past summer, the group piloted a new program through which communications professors and students are recruited to do PR during hurricanes.

'The Red Cross has positioned itself as the foremost nongovernmental organization to offer relief in times of disaster,' says Marty Davis, managing director of Burson-Marsteller's healthcare practice. 'Probably the only US equivalent is FEMA, and people want to see the Red Cross before FEMA. They've come to be recognized domestically and internationally as salvation for the ordinary person in times of crisis.'

To keep its name on the radar screens of potential donors between natural disasters and blood shortages, the group relies on advertising space donated by major networks, newspapers and magazines, including USA Today, Martha Stewart Living and the National Association of Broadcasters. Recently, the ARC added paid advertising to that effort, with a dollars 1 million pilot program running in five major metropolitan markets.

Keeping the brand alive

'We're number one in nonprofit brand awareness in the US,' boasts Bill Blaul, SVP of communications and marketing, quoting research by brand- equity marketing firm Worthwin Worldwide. 'We're fairly close to Coca-Cola and, internationally, just behind the Olympic rings. But brand ID will only take any organization so far, and that has to be continually reinforced through both earned and paid media.'

The ARC also benefits from a less direct form of earned advertising - the ubiquity of the Red Cross logo in movies and on TV. Recent cameos appearances have included Seinfeld, Mad About You and the CBS miniseries Aftershock. The group strives to make the most of these appearances by working with producers and publicists to ensure accuracy and get the message out.

The ARC has also taken to the Internet, setting up an online donor scheduling system through which people can sign up to have blood drawn. In addition, the organization is working on a program that would allow a 'sponsor' - an ARC contact within a workplace - to alert fellow staff to a blood drive through a company's computer network.


PR Agency: Cohn & Wolfe (project basis)

PR Budget: dollars 8.7 million

SVP, comms and marketing: Bill Blaul

Disaster comms: Darren Irby

Senior director comms and marketing: Deborah Daley.

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