ANALYSIS: Two years later, PR industry sees 9/11 as a normal day

Despite last year's near-constant coverage and calls for service or reflection, Melanie Shortman finds that many PR pros will do business as usual on September 11, 2003.

Despite last year's near-constant coverage and calls for service or reflection, Melanie Shortman finds that many PR pros will do business as usual on September 11, 2003.

This week, many Americans will mentally retrace their actions on the morning of September 11, 2001, as they remember the ways in which they found out about the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC. For Dan Sondhelm, a partner at Alexandria, VA-based financial media relations firm SunStar, who was in the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, it will be a day of retracing his actions physically as he returns to New York on the second anniversary of the attacks. Sondhelm first learned that an airplane had hit one of the Trade Center towers when he was standing in the lobby of the first tower. Arriving early for a 10am media briefing, he didn't hear the plane hit, but saw people run into the lobby screaming. When security guards instructed everyone to get out, he and his colleagues saw the images that would be broadcast on a continuous loop for months thereafter: the second plane colliding with the second tower, people panicking in the streets, and workers jumping from their office windows. "That's when we said, let's just walk North," Sondhelm says. Sitting in the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel in Times Square, he and his colleagues didn't see the live coverage of events unfolding, but instead thought about the well-being of clients, reporters, and the similar attacks not far from their homes while they looked for a room to spend the night. They returned to Virginia the next day by car, after walking over the 59th Street bridge. "This year," Sondhelm says, "I'm going back to New York with a client to do a media tour for overlooked mutual funds that have been performing well." Though going over similar activities, he refers to the second anniversary of September 11 as "just another day." His plans are similar to those of other PR professionals. On Thursday, there will be lunches with editors, meetings with clients, and employee-appreciation days. Unlike last year, when phones were silent and memorial services were crowded and plentiful, this year PR practitioners will be allowed to attend services and encouraged to participate in programs such as One Day's Pay, which pushes for a national day of service and donation. A Profnet sent to PR pros asking what they had planned for the anniversary received a variety of responses - from the personal to the professional. At St. Louis-based agency The Standing Partnership, senior account executive Christi Dixon says that her firm plans to watch the Cardinals play the Colorado Rockies, since their annual client-appreciation day happens to fall on the 11th. Practitioners at California-based Makeover Media will be having an editor lunch similar to one cancelled on September 11, 2001, with a 10-course sushi lunch in Beverly Hills. Media relations professional Bruce Weinstein wrote that he plans to reflect and pray for those who died while listening to Bruce Springsteen's song "Into the Fire." Minneapolis-based Padilla Speer Beardsley will be working on a pro bono basis for the "Minnesota Remembers September 11" event, and saying good-bye to a practitioner and National Guard reservist who is leaving for a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. Low-key, interpretive coverage In much the same way that memorial services seemed ubiquitous last year, broadcasts, newspapers, and magazines were crowded with "one year later" stories and commemorative sections, columns, and specials. But this year, according to The New York Times, coverage will be more low-key and interpretive than last year. "The reasons they cite are primarily emotional," says the September 1 article by Times' media reporter Jacques Steinberg, "the sense that many people would prefer not to spend much time in reflection this year." Networks CBS and NBC plan to offer little more than coverage of memorial services, while ABC will have September 11-related programming on its news programs. However, soap operas and talk shows, which were preempted by coverage last year, will run at their normally scheduled times. Ronald Hanser, president of Des Moines, IA-based Hanser & Associates, agrees that the public doesn't want to continue to visit painful memories. He says, "There was certainly in the days, weeks, and months following a stunned reaction to what [the attacks] meant to Americans, and now we've had time to absorb it. There's additional perspective and the need for people to retain a semblance of normalcy." Hanser, like Sondhelm, will be traveling to New York on business, to meet with Wall Street Journal editors and attend the executive board meeting of PR-firm network Pinnacle Worldwide, of which he is president-elect. Hanser says he expects that people will think about the anniversary and the lives lost, and that his firm's "business as usual" approach will still involve a reflection on the attacks. "Our conference room is decorated with a large photograph I shot of the New York skyline, prominently featuring the World Trade Center," he says. "The photo is among many that salute the cities where our firm has affiliated offices, and it was a topic of discussion, among other sad and serious things, on September 12. We decided to leave the photo in place as a tribute to the spirit of the city and to America - its soul intact, although thousands of American lives were lost." And while going about a daily routine may seem insensitive and uncaring, Hanser says that the event was widespread enough that it will touch anyone. "I think any caring and compassionate American has it on the mind," Hanser explains, "but we decided to maintain business as usual. We don't call it denial - it's defiance." Dealing with the day directly While business as usual is a sign of emotional recovery for some, the date of September 11 will resonate with others for a long time, especially those who were directly involved and those who worked on issues closely related to the attacks. PR practitioners at New York-based MGP & Associates will attend the memorial service held at Ground Zero because of the agency's involvement in the reaction and recovery efforts. President Mike Paul says, "The day that the tragedy happened, I got an emergency phone call from a government agency to work on some crisis stuff. We feel very close to all of those who lost loved ones, the workers from police, fire, and emergency personnel to the iron workers and the doctors who were working from a forensic perspective. We have given any of our consultants the option of joining us, and everyone who works with me has wanted to be a part of the memorial service." Paul, a practicing Christian who plans to pray in his church, says that it is important for practitioners and all people to do what feels appropriate to them. "Those images are going to come up year after year. If you were here or if you had relatives in the city, we're all trying to deal with it and trying to turn it into something positive." Everyone deals with the memory of tragedy in different ways, Paul says. "I don't care if you were as involved as we were or just in New York that day. You can't help but feel different on that day. You either keep emotion in, or you share it with others, not only to heal but to help others heal. However, we should not fool ourselves to think that we're made of steel and we don't have to deal with our emotions. That goes for our work and our personal lives."

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