A look back at 6 lessons in crisis communication from 9/11

Like many people, I have been thinking about the events of September 11, 2001, as the tenth anniversary approaches.  This article from the New York Times earlier this week focused on the media’s efforts to cover the anniversary with sensitivity, and it called to mind some remarks I gave about the media’s conduct in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

In February 2002, just a few months after the attack, I had a chance to reflect on the lessons of 9/11 at a meeting of the Public Relations Society of New York.  I spoke about working with Cantor Fitzgerald when I was an executive at Edelman, and I was joined on a panel by senior communications executives from Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch who offered accounts of their experiences.

It was hard to draw lasting conclusions when we were still absorbing the aftermath of the tragedy, but as I read through my remarks today the lessons hold up pretty well.  My observations about the news media’s conduct could apply to most any crisis today, and we’ve become so accustomed to their excesses that we seldom object to them as I did then.

Many of the issues around compensation to victims still arouse debate: Look no further than the fight to pass the Zadroga Act for those suffering from ground zero-related health problems.  Striking too is that most of the leaders at that time – Rudy Guiliani, David Komansky, Phil Purcell – have disappeared.   Only Howard Lutnick remains.

Here’s the text of the remarks from February 2002, below, and as a pdf: WTC lessons Feb 2002.

Six lessons in crisis communication from the WTC tragedy

1. Being global was a big advantage.  Any organization that had to rely solely on its New York resources to recover from the tragedy was at a huge disadvantage. This meant smaller firms, like investment bank Sandler O’Neal, had to rebuild their operations from scratch. In contrast, larger organizations, especially those with a global network found it easier to restore their businesses. Cantor Fitzgerald was able to resume its activity in U.S. government securities when the market reopened less than two days after the tragedy largely because of its extensive operations in London.  Likewise, we at Edelman supported Cantor Fitzgerald virtually around the clock through our offices in New York, Hong Kong and London in the days immediately following the attack.

2.  Ordinary people did extraordinary things.  The courage and heroism of firefighters, police and emergency workers were incredibly moving. But just as dramatic were the contributions of ordinary people. There are almost too many examples to count: Office workers who helped colleagues escape the buildings, shopkeepers who provided shelter as the towers collapsed, blood donors and volunteers of every stripe, from nurses to lawyers to immigration experts.  Certainly without their efforts the scale of the tragedy would have been far greater and the city’s recovery much slower. At Edelman, we saw this first hand. Many of our people volunteered to staff the Cantor Fitzgerald family center at the Pierre Hotel. Most just showed up and stayed as long as they were needed.

3.  The media showed their best and worst sides.  The WTC attack was unique in many respects, and as a media event it was without precedent. It was the first terrorist tragedy captured on television, and its most dramatic moment — the collapse of the first tower — was broadcast live around the world. Only the live radio broadcast of the Hindenburg disaster a generation ago comes close. (Like the Twin Towers, it too was a symbol of an age, a monument to technical achievement.)

On the whole, the media earned high marks for their coverage of the tragedy and its aftermath. The New York Times’s portraits of each victim long will be remembered for their power and dignity.

But sadly, there were times when the media were intrusive, insensitive, needlessly competitive and exploitative. We saw this up close while working with Cantor Fitzgerald. Some examples? Repeated calls to families of victims; television crews that ambushed surviving workers; demands for names and detailed personal information on individuals believed lost. Perhaps most frustrating were the requests for detailed business information, as though the company had suffered only a minor setback, like a fire in a warehouse, instead of the obliteration of its headquarters and the loss of seventy percent of its staff there — about a third of its total workforce.

This behavior had consequences: One of my colleagues tried to help a journalist who erroneously reported that a missing individual appeared on a “safe” list, raising hopes with the family that their son might be alive. The reporter was understandably horrified at her error and spoke repeatedly with the family as they tried to sort out the facts.

It’s hard to blame individual reporters for these excesses. They’re under immense competitive pressure in a media landscape that is relentless, constant and forever blurring news, entertainment, scandal and just plain voyeurism. I fault the editors, whose judgment should have been sharper.

4.  Crisis leadership was redefined.  Many of the time-tested rules of crisis leadership applied to the WTC tragedy: Make the CEO visible. Get your message out early and clearly. Be responsive, even with limited information.

But the unique nature of this disaster added some new elements. For example, it became acceptable for leaders to show emotion. Rudy Giuliani’s emotional news conferences and Howard Lutnick’s tearful interviews tapped the raw grief felt by all New Yorkers. Other leaders also broke down in interviews, notably David Komansky of Merrill Lynch and Phil Purcell of Morgan Stanley.  Even as recently as two weeks ago, John Mack – hardly a Wall Street softie – cried during an interview with the New York Times.  We’ve come a long way from the days of Ed Muskie’s Presidential campaign.

5.  Beware the backlash.  Cantor Fitzgerald was the first but certainly not the only company to be criticized for its response to the tragedy. The American Red Cross, The United Way, The Salvation Army, Marsh McLennan and newly formed charities like The Twin Towers Fund and the Mayor’s 9/11 Fund all felt the sting of critical media attention. Ironically, many of these organizations were praised for their responses in the days immediately following the tragedy.

I think this came about because so much help poured forth that expectations about what would be done for victims’ families began to rise – but the capacity of the organizations did not. The Red Cross soon had more blood donations than it could use. The Salvation Army couldn’t pay the thousands of household bills from victims’ families that flooded its offices. And how does a newly formed charity like the Twin Towers Fund set up the infrastructure to disperse tens of millions of dollars?

6.  The tragedy raised new issues that will be difficult to resolve.  What are the obligations of an employer to the families of its deceased employees? Is a year of health benefits adequate? Five years? Ten? How should the government compensate these families? And what does the government’s response mean for families who lost loved ones in previous terror incidents like the attacks on U.S. embassies or the Oklahoma City bombing? None of these questions has an easy answer and they’ll be debated in many places – boardrooms, courts, and legislatures – in the months to come.

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2 thoughts on “A look back at 6 lessons in crisis communication from 9/11

  1. Your post made me think back to then – leaving the subway seeing papers flying in the sky later seeing so much more… As a corporate communicator the need to bravely wear different hats was key as we collected information from around the city, nation and world while also trying to keep our team (a large law firm) safe and secure, minimizing panic. The days immediately following were the toughest – tracking down people while also trying to reopen with the NYSE. Interfacing with the media was critical – I remember getting calls from the legal media on my cell phone asking about the firm – asking how to help the firm. Conference calls with over 700 open lines became our lifeline to the firm. And on those calls everyone from the chair to the guy who stocked paperclips participated. For me, I’ll avoid the events this Sunday. And just move on.

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