Katrina fraud prompts Red Cross to contemplate comms

WASHINGTON: The American Red Cross is working on solidifying internal and external communication procedures in the wake of revelations of fraud by Hurricane Katrina volunteers.

WASHINGTON: The American Red Cross is working on solidifying internal and external communication procedures in the wake of revelations of fraud by Hurricane Katrina volunteers.

The accusations, some of them by former Red Cross volunteer - and attorney - Jerome Nickerson, included improper diversion of relief supplies, failure by volunteers to follow Red Cross procedures in tracking and distributing supplies, and the use of felons as volunteers, a violation of Red Cross rules.

The Red Cross reportedly received approximately 60% of the $3.6 billion that Americans donated for hurricane relief.

Prompted by recent media coverage of the allegations, as well as pressure from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the Red Cross launched its own investigation and uncovered misconduct by three volunteers in New Orleans. It has since turned over evidence to the FBI.

Chuck Connor, SVP of communication and marketing for the Red Cross, said it is important to communicate to the public that the organization is actively trying to fix the problems.

"We're always concerned about the organization's reputation," he said. "It's our uppermost consideration 365 days a year because we rely totally on the public trust and confidence in the donated dollar."

Connor said the Red Cross is in the process of planning a national event, possibly in Washington, DC, to communicate how it is working to improve its disaster services. The organization also anticipates an additional program to provide more in-depth information to media in the hurricane-prone regions. Both should take place within the next 30 to 45 days.

"They key thing that we're trying to convey is that we know that our service for Katrina was far from perfect," Connor said. "We will fix what needs to be fixed. Those parts of our house that need to be put in order, we will put in order."

Among the issues is the fact that many of the volunteers who witnessed wrongdoing went directly to the media instead of following internal procedures for reporting such incidents, which include a toll-free anonymous hotline.

"Up to now, what we have faced is media unfortunately learning of things about the Red Cross that the Red Cross didn't know itself," he noted. "That has put us a little bit on the defensive and more reactive than we like to be. What we need to do is to make our internal complaint systems more robust."

Jeff Braun, VP and GM of The Ammerman Experience, agreed that the Red Cross suffered by not being able to be more proactive in telling its story.

"When you're in this reactive mode and you have others out there screaming fraud and impropriety... it's hard for the public to determine whom to believe," Braun said. "The whole Katrina response effort is framed by failure, from [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] on down. Now these allegations come out about the Red Cross, and everyone lumps it into the same bucket."

The key thing for the Red Cross to communicate, he added, is that the behavior exhibited by those volunteers will not be tolerated.

"[The Red Cross] also needs to be very transparent about what occurred by admitting there were some disconnects internally that occurred for some specific and unique reasons associated with Katrina," Braun said. "I think the public can be very forgiving if they understand what happened. A great majority of people will forget this."

Connor suggested that the organization is also considering revamping its communication strategy during natural disasters, giving a bigger and more expanded role to advertising.

"We intend to be using occasional, if necessary, paid media to ensure that our message of what the Red Cross is doing and any difficulties we are having get to the American public," he said. "My big lesson was that there comes a point where relying on reporters to get your institution's message to the public is a mistake."

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