Katrina anniversary spurs comms surge

Various organizations are talking about what they've done - and what still must be done - post-Katrina

Various organizations are talking about what they've done - and what still must be done - post-Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region last year, nonprofit organizations sprang into action, sparking a nationwide fundraising effort that brought in millions of dollars. Now, as the year anniversary approaches, some of those same organizations are ramping up their communications efforts to explain their roles during a crisis and to educate the media and Americans about issues still facing the area and its residents.

Chuck Connor, SVP of communications and marketing for the American Red Cross, says the organization is not only encouraging local chapters to participate in community commemorative events, but is also conducting national media outreach armed with statistics on the Red Cross' response to the disaster, including the fact that there was a record number of meals issued, families assisted, and people sheltered.

The Red Cross' reputation was battered after Katrina, and its president Marsha Evans stepped down in December 2005 amid criticism that the agency handled communications and coordination poorly.

Bolstered by a national ad campaign, the Red Cross will also seek to set expectations about its responsibilities in a crisis.

"A large percentage of the American public thinks we have helicopters and do rescues, and we don't do that," he says. "We must do a better job of informing the American public about what the mission of the Red Cross is after disasters."

Shelley Borysiewicz, manager of media relations at Catholic Charities USA, says the organization is also using the anniversary as a platform to discuss how it has been helping since the disaster; Borysiewicz says the organization has had more than 4,500 volunteers in New Orleans alone.

"Catholic Charities' mission for disaster response is long-term recovery, so our work is just getting started," she says. "The message we want to get out to media, donors, and the general public is that despite [the fact] that it's a year later, there's so much work left to be done."

Borysiewicz notes that the organization is working with national media to raise awareness about the current state of the Gulf Coast region. It is especially interested in shedding light on the effect the disaster had on area residents' mental health.

"It's a mental-health crisis," she says. "Suicide rates in New Orleans alone have tripled since Hurricane Katrina."

Part of Catholic Charities' outreach to the media, she says, involves offering experts who can speak about the effect Katrina has had on residents' mental well-being.

Other organizations are using the anniversary as a launching pad for campaigns associated with rebuilding the area and the lives of its residents.

Shawn Wood, senior associate at Burson-Marsteller, is working with the United Negro College Fund as it launches its "Wave of Hope" effort. In partnership with former Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton, the initiative will benefit the seven historically black colleges and universities in the area affected by Katrina.

"We're using the anniversary as the catalyst," he says. "We know that there will
be a lot of human-interest stories created. There will be the rebuilding of homes and businesses, but what about education?"

Corporations are also taking part. New Orleans-based Deveney Communications is working with many clients on anniversary-related events, says Kara Kortman, senior communications counsel at the firm. One such client is the W Hotels of New Orleans. Deveney is positioning the hotel's executives as experts on hospitality, which is the city's leading industry.

"People around the globe want an update on what's going on," says agency president John Deveney. "With that increased interest and scrutiny comes a great opportunity for organizations, industries, and businesses to get their messages out. What's important is to offer the various perspectives of what's happening."

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