CEO Q&A: Joe Daniels, National September 11 Memorial & Museum

Joe Daniels of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum tells Diana Bradley about the nonprofit's comms efforts.

How did you arrive in your current post?
I directed the planning, construction, and development for the project and led the foundation to reach many milestones, including a more than $450 million fundraising campaign.

I joined the foundation in 2005 as general counsel. I served as acting president and CEO for several months before 9/11 Memorial board chairman and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg named me president and CEO in October 2006. Before joining the organization, I led external initiatives at the Robin Hood Foundation. Prior to that, I consulted for McKinsey & Co.

How is your comms team structured?
Our communications and digital media department oversees media relations, the website, social and digital media, and mobile communications planning. It’s a department of seven people and its SVP reports to me.

When the museum opened, some gift shop items sparked outrage with visitors. How did you respond?
The team first responded by clearing up a lot of mischaracterization. This led to a focus on providing the important information that, as a nonprofit not funded by the government, shop proceeds help support operations and sustain this nationally significant institution. Context is very important, and it was my communications team’s job to provide it for this particular issue. Part of the outreach plan involved connecting with influential media outlets and members of the 9/11 community, and using social media to reach others.

September 11 is one of the most significant moments in this country’s history. It is also a difficult history, fraught with emotion. My team understands this. In crisis, we focus on fact-based narratives to provide an understanding of the nonprofit organization’s mission to educate, honor, and preserve history.

What role does PR play with the memorial and museum?
We have been fortunate to work with Edelman over the years as the organization reached major milestones, which include the museum’s opening this past May. Our internal communications staffers, who focus on understanding the needs of domestic and foreign media outlets, build strategies that are aligned with our mission. The team also uses social media campaigns to inform, engage, spread awareness, and fundraise.

Tell me about your social media campaigns.
We have more than 1.5 million followers across Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. Our organization is active on these channels daily. Our Twitter feed is updated constantly and is used to provide real-time information to visitors of the eight-acre memorial plaza as well as details for planning a visit to the museum.

We also use Google+ Hangouts to bring people together to discuss 9/11 topics and provide virtual tours of the site. Last year for Memorial Day we partnered with Google and Veterans United to provide a virtual tour of the site for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans across the US. In the future, we will use the same technology to offer virtual field trips for students around the world.

We are using a #MuseumMonday Twitter campaign that began in the lead-up to the museum opening. Each week we showcase content for people who want to visit or learn more about our mission.

We use Pinterest to promote the museum with a board that focuses on smaller artifacts – police shields, shoes worn by people who escaped the buildings – in our collection. In addition, we have an ongoing awareness campaign that recognizes the birth dates of 9/11 victims. Our staffers place a single white rose at the names of victims listed on the 9/11 Memorial on their birthday. Photos of the roses are then shared on social media.

Who is your target audience and how do you engage them?
As of July 2014, we have had more than 481,000 visitors since the opening in May. This is a museum for all of us. It is a place of understanding, learning, and commemoration. There are few such places built where history actually happened. Social media has been a critical tool for us to reach not only the 9/11 community worldwide, but also a generation of people who were not yet born or were very young at the time of the attacks.

Can museum visitors create content?
Our Signing Steel artifact is where visitors are invited to sign their names or leave a message via four touch-screen monitors. Signatures and messages are then incorporated into a world map projected on the adjacent wall.

Visitors can video record their own responses to questions on 9/11’s impact, via a touch-screen interface in the museum.

Can you tell us about your ongoing dialogue with victims’ families?
These 9/11 families are our most important stakeholder group, and our lines of communication with them are always open. Eleven family members of victims from the three 9/11 attack sites serve on our board of directors. We strive for a balance with all of our key stakeholder groups, which also includes 9/11 rescue and recovery workers, survivors, and the lower-Manhattan community. 

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