Newsmaker: Suzy DeFrancis, American Red Cross

As she battles daily crises, the chief public affairs officer at the American Red Cross has found a winning formula by mixing tradition with an army of digital volunteers.

"I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past."

Those words of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton are carved into the marble walls at the organization's headquarters in Washington, DC - an impressive building of marble staircases, Tiffany windows, and stone columns built in 1917. It is one of four American Red Cross buildings situated together across from the National Mall. And less than a mile away sits the "new," a digital operations center that has redefined how the nonprofit communicates.

American Red Cross, chief public affairs officer

US Department of Health and Human Services, assistant secretary, public affairs

The White House, deputy assistant to President George W. Bush for comms

Porter Novelli, SVP, and director, public affairs. Began as an account supervisor and later was named VP

Republican National Committee, various roles, including deputy director of comms

Stay-at-home mom

Deaver & Hannaford, PR associate

Opened in March 2012, all channels of communication are leveraged in real time to monitor stakeholder engagement and maximize disaster response. Built in partnership with Dell, it is the first social media-based operation devoted to humanitarian relief.

The center is outfitted with feeds from key partners such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a digital list of active events, and a war room where leaders of units including shelter, feeding, fundraising, and volunteers meet during a response.

Even the office of chief public affairs officer Suzy DeFrancis is a microcosm of an iconic past interlocked with a 24/7 future. In the hallway, large black-and-white images chronicle the efforts of Red Cross staffers and volunteers in field hospitals and military bases in Vietnam during the latter part of the 1960s. In her office is a picture of her mother, a Red Cross volunteer, in uniform.

Social outreach strategies
Fast forward to the present and the first topic of discussion is decidedly 2013. In an intense effort during the last 12 months, the organization has rolled out about a half dozen free apps that have already been downloaded 3.6 million times.

"We want to make social media part of the DNA of the Red Cross," says DeFrancis, who has been in her role six years and reports to Gail McGovern, CEO and president. "We are developing social media expertise in all our lines of business."

At headquarters there is a small three- person social media staff for the nonprofit, which has more than 500 chapters across the US. And while many big businesses and brands sweat the idea of losing control of messaging, for the Red Cross, which is comprised of 85% volunteers, creating a vast network to disseminate critical information quickly is vital.

Training is crucial and the Red Cross has about 160 certified digital volunteers that work from headquarters or their own offices or homes during disasters.

During an emergency such as Superstorm Sandy last year, the organization had to scale up, working around the clock in four-hour shifts.

"We were able to have a digital volunteer in Germany telling people in New York where Red Cross emergency vehicles were and where to get water and meals," says DeFrancis. "The next step will be extending that to the general public. Social media is informing citizen engagement. Most people come forward during an event. We don't have time to train them all, but we're looking for ways to put them to work right away."

Support for the troops

The American Red Cross is well known for disaster relief and for being the country's largest single supplier of blood, but the nonprofit's service to armed forces is especially near and dear to DeFrancis. One of her three sons is a Marine.

Its charter says the Red Cross will be a means of emergency communication for families in the US and military personnel serving overseas. However, the mission goes much further by providing emotional, mental, and financial support and job training for military personnel and their families and helps the wounded in military hospitals. “It is one of the oldest and most beautiful parts of our mission,” adds DeFrancis.

One of the apps launched allows people to sign up to become a volunteer, provides a briefing, and sends an alert if there is an event. There is also a weather app that sends alerts and a first aid app that offers guidance on helping someone with issues ranging from burns to a heart attack.

Rapid response
The nonprofit engages on many platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram, but Twitter is its strongest channel of communication because of its ability to reach the largest audience with news and information. The Red Cross has 1.1 million Twitter followers.

Its website offers newscast-type videos from volunteers at the scene of events, as well as footage from disaster victims helped by the group. An advanced public affairs team does interviews with media and gathers stories. They are taught how to conduct and edit video interviews on their phone.

"We want to make sure people feel information is credible and authentic," explains DeFrancis. "We train them on every form of media and social. When a disaster strikes, we have assets within about two hours of everywhere in the US. In the old days, we used to send the head of the Red Cross in the market. Now we send volunteers."

One initiative went so far as to send out video cameras to disaster victims.

"These were the real deal. No one was there telling them what to shoot," she adds. "When I came here six years ago our first battle was over whether we could even do a blog. We have benefited from delivering an amazing amount of information and having incredible engagement with people."

One misstep in 2011 involved a social media specialist mistakenly using the Red Cross Twitter account to send out a tweet about getting drunk on Dogfish Head beer. The nonprofit opted for humor and a proportional response, says DeFrancis, sending a tweet reassuring all that "the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys."

Dogfish Head brewery joined in, encouraging donations to the Red Cross and, naturally, more consumption of their beer.

The ability for social media to be a one-on-one lifeline was first seen during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. For the first time tweets came in from people in dire need, some buried under rubble. Tweets found their way to friends in the US, then to the Red Cross, which got the news to the State Department.

Like many organizations, the Red Cross has had to navigate through challenging financial times and weather key leadership changes. Mark Everson, the agency's fifth CEO in six years, resigned in November 2007 because of an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate after only six months on the job. McGovern, who has held top positions at AT&T and Fidelity Investments, was named president and CEO in April 2008. At that time, the nonprofit also faced a $200 million operating deficit. A restructure ensued that consolidated chapters and streamlined back-office functions.

"Some of it was painful. We are 10% smaller in our number of employees," says DeFrancis, "but we can look a donor in the eye and say we don't have a lot of duplication. We spent a lot on centralizing back-office systems and marketing. The only thing we did not centralize is communications because it is such a localized thing."

On average, 91 cents of every dollar in donations is spent on programs.

"Suzy's communications savvy has helped the Red Cross expand the reach of our traditional lifesaving services, while becoming modern and relevant in the rapidly changing media landscape of the 21st century," says McGovern. "I trust her judgment, instincts, and intellect implicitly, and I rely on her to calmly provide clarity and sound decisions during even the most hectic emergency and disaster-response situations."

The organization launched a new intranet making it easier for staffers to get information and get in touch with each other. Local chapters can find daily updates on what is being done to address a disaster in another area. The information helps employees be good brand ambassadors, says DeFrancis.

"One of our biggest challenges is that we are responding to disasters every day even if people don't see it on the news," she says. The Red Cross responds to more than 200 disasters on an average day, from house fires to major events.

Chuck Greener, VP, corporate affairs and communications at Walgreens, who worked with DeFrancis at the Republican National Committee and Porter Novelli, says she is the consummate PR pro.

"John D. Rockefeller once said, 'Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing,'" he notes. "Suzy cares about both - doing the right thing and communicating the results with passion, energy, and authenticity. There are simply none better."

Day-to-day operations
Part of DeFrancis' core responsibilities is presenting a united public face and communicating on day-to-day operations with organizations including the Department of Homeland Security and state and local government. The Red Cross works closely with members of Congress, particularly as disasters affect their constituencies. The agency also tours disaster sites with the president. It is a tradition that the president is also the honorary chair of the American Red Cross.

Corporate partnerships are just as vital and go beyond disaster relief. The Red Cross works with Walmart on a nurse's assistant program where 95% of candidates get jobs and the nonprofit trains corporate volunteers. Caterpillar substituted its annual golf outing for a CPR training course. "Within six months, the training was used to help save an employee's life," she adds.

For the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy the group put together a comprehensive report to let donors know how their money was put to work. McGovern loves to tell the story of being engaged by a donor at an airport intent to know how her $10 donation had been spent. "Transparency for us has got to that level," laughs DeFrancis.

"People depend on us and we have to earn that trust every day," she asserts. "It is a big responsibility. One of the ways we do that is by being open about what we are doing and what we have accomplished."

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