Red Cross 'vehemently' disputes NPR, ProPublica report faulting Sandy response

The American Red Cross is actively pushing back against a report by NPR and ProPublica that alleges the group wasn't up to the task of responding to Superstorm Sandy two years ago.

WASHINGTON, DC: The American Red Cross contends it is being transparent and forthright as it disputes an investigative report by journalism nonprofit ProPublica and National Public Radio that claims it "botched key elements" of its response to Superstorm Sandy.  

Published on the two-year anniversary of "Frankenstorm" Sandy’s touchdown, the report alleged that the Red Cross was unprepared for Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac and worried more about its own image rather than logistics.

For instance, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks, usually deployed to deliver aid, to be driven around nearly empty "just to be seen" during Isaac, according to the report. In its response to Sandy, emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, the article stated.

"We vehemently dispute many of the allegations in [ProPublica and NPR’s] story," Laura Howe, VP of PR at the American Red Cross, told PRWeek.

On Tuesday evening, ProPublica began posting teasers for Wednesday’s story. At that point, the Red Cross began responding "moments after" with a statement on its website. Howe said the organization had cooperated with the news outlets since this summer, so it saw the story coming.

"This has been a long process and a long road," she added. "ProPublica has done some reporting on us before this story, so we were familiar with them and able to anticipate what we thought the story would say."

Before the article’s publication, the Red Cross provided ProPublica with answers to "hundreds of questions" both verbally and written, Howe said. The publication also spent an hour talking to a Red Cross disaster representative, but very little of that interview or any answers the organization gave to ProPublica made it into the final piece, she contended.

In the article, ProPublica and NPR cited top Red Cross disaster-response official Trevor Riggen's reply to an email from an experienced on-the-ground worker who had outlined a number of issues in Isaac’s aftermath.

"From a broad perspective I completely agree with you," Riggen told the outlets. "This is extremely systemic."

Meanwhile, a different official in charge of the Sandy response in New York is quoted as saying the organization was "not good at scaling up" to meet the size of the disaster.

The Red Cross contends that only negative quotes about its response to the storms were cherry-picked for the story.

"We know [NPR and ProPublica] contacted a number of people who had very positive things to say about Red Cross and those things and that perspective didn’t make it into the one-sided story," said Howe.

Once the full story was published on Wednesday morning, the Red Cross updated its statement. The organization also posted a "myth-versus-fact" document on its corporate blog that highlights what it believes the news organizations left out.

"The issues in the article are very wide-ranging and cover a lot of ground, so we felt that giving a point-by-point refutation was the best way to go because they are so complex," said Howe.

Following that, the organization posted an entry that it claims "pulled back the curtains" on the outlets’ reporting tactics. These included "hounding" Red Cross volunteers with unwanted phone calls to the point of calling their neighbors and relatives to track them down, according to the nonprofit. It also highlighted why it believes Americans should continue to trust the Red Cross despite the story.

The goal of the blog, penned by Howe, is to refute claims by ProPublica and NPR that the Red Cross cares more about publicity than the people it serves.

"This is patently untrue," she blogged. "The needs of the people we serve drive every decision we make. Period. That perspective never made it into ProPublica’s story either. We respond to 70,000 disasters every year, most of which are home fires that never make news. If we were in this for the publicity, why would the Red Cross make that level of effort for work the public never sees?"

However, the Red Cross is not taking its side of the story to social media because many people are unaware of the report, according to Howe.

"We have a large [social media] audience, and there is no reason to put the story in front of people who haven’t seen it," she explained. "So we are also trying to maintain a very measured response."

However, Red Cross employees have tweeted about the situation on their personal Facebook and Twitter accounts and responded to others on social media.

Howe added that she was shocked by news outlets that have followed up on the story but did not call the Red Cross for comment. The organization has reached out to those journalists and bloggers with its statement and other materials.

She added that the Red Cross has not hired a crisis PR firm to assist with this situation.

"We have a very skilled and talented team here, so we are relying on that depth of experience and knowledge to get us through this issue," she said.

Jesse Eisinger, one of ProPublica’s reporters on the story, told PRWeek that the outlet did reach out to former and current employees of the Red Cross, one part of its efforts to get the story right.

"We certainly never hounded anybody," he recalled. "If anyone turned us down, we did not aggressively pursue people. That is just not what we do."

Asked about the Red Cross’ myths-versus-facts document, Eisinger said the organization has not pointed out any factual inaccuracies in the story. He added that ProPublica ran every fact that might have appeared in the piece by the Red Cross for comment, but the group’s responses were "serially misleading."

In response to Howe’s claims that the story was one-sided, Eisinger said ProPublica does not build its stories through anecdote, but from documents and on-the-record sources.

"If it is one-sided, the one side comes from the Red Cross’ own words from their own documents," he explained. "I don’t think they know the content of our conversations with employees and former employees. But we spoke to dozens of people, and by and large they were not positive about the Red Cross."

"We stand by our stories, which were based on the Red Cross’ own internal reports and dozens of on-the-record interviews with sources who had first-hand knowledge," NPR senior investigations editor Robert Little told PRWeek via email.

Media outlets respond to the story on Twitter:

This story was updated on Oct. 30 at 5pm ET with comment from NPR.

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