Today, I’m posting an update on a previous post with thoughts on how the September 11 attacks immediately reshaped community, public relations, and communications from my perspective as an education communicator.
To learn more about the history and experience, visit the 9/11 Memorial Site.
Reflecting on How 9/11 Immediately Impacted Community PR and Communications
On September 9, 2001, we celebrated a child’s birthday party. Walking down Michigan Avenue beside my ecstatic children, I remember thinking how carefree, jubilant and fun life can be.
On September 11, 2001, I got up and went through the usual motions of a working mother with three children – ages 12, 9 and 7 – to get off to school. My husband was away on business in Rotterdam and I was excited to be dressed in a snappy navy pant suit for a meeting with our local school district about photographing the annual report. I marveled at how beautifully the day was starting out.
On our way out the door to walk my boys to school, the phone rang. A friend was calling with the first news about the attacks. I didn’t say anything to the boys, but I told I’d call her back after I dropped them off.
Walking down our quiet, sunny street the news was surreal. How could a day seem so idyllic when the world was falling apart? I could only think about when and where the next attack would be. Arriving at the school district headquarters, the staff was stunned and silent, gathered around a radio, listening for updates and quietly considering crisis communication responses.
Every year on this day, I think back to those first few turbulent hours after the tragic event and remember how fragile the world seemed and how strong and calm we needed to be as education communicators.
We needed to find ways to communicate quickly, accurately and effectively.
At that time, most community organizations – including schools – had no email database, only phone numbers and addresses. While the press could and would cover news, it would be on their deadline and in their voice. Producing a letter took time to write, print or copy and mail. Backpack communications was the most reliable and quick route to homes.
After 9/11, community organizations became more receptive and willing to gather email addresses, connect leaders online and form councils to relay information in case there was another crisis – or good news – that needed to be delivered quickly.
As an early email adapter, I became an advocate and a teacher on how to transfer communications to a digital platform to reach the media, leadership and the community at large.
The school district approved my proposal to develop an e-newsletter, only for teachers and the press at first. Eventually, subscriptions were open to the public. Thanks to Mary Kay O’Grady for asking me to manage these projects for her team.
I did get to photograph the cover of the school district’s 2001 annual report. The concept started out as an image of teachers gathered around a flagpole in silence. I had another idea, which was approved in its place. I asked if I could photograph my son’s first-grade class releasing butterflies. After the butterflies flew off, I took pictures of the fifth graders replanting a barren prairie patch. Images from each made the annual report with a community theme of new life and recovery.
For the first time ever, I’m sharing one of our family’s annual messages. Each year, I write a brief reflection on the year’s main events. In 2001, the theme was “No Place Like Home.”
One hot day in August, the boys and I decided to go to summer movie camp. When we got there and saw “The Wizard of Oz” featured, the boys wanted to go home. What? No first run feature?
Lured by the promise of free popcorn and soda, we went in. During the long time it took the movie to start, the boys giggled a lot as they met other kids around them.
Soon enough, the lights went down and the film came on. As the theater quieted down, I wondered how many times I’d seen this movie – at least a dozen, but never on a big screen. Geez, I was even the Good Witch in a play production in ninth grade. (I’ll be forever indebted to Aunt Aggie for stitching up such a wondrous confection of a costume.)
The familiar scenes flashed on the screen, but they were – of course – bigger, brighter and more detailed. Why, I never knew the Tinman wore blue eye shadow. Or that the flowers and poppies were so pretty.
They even had pretty good special effects back then. In the end, Dorothy made it home, as she always does. And I cried like I always do. Something about that faded wallpaper and Auntie Em and Uncle Henry resembling my long gone grammas and grandpas so much.
Before they could rush down the aisle, I stopped the boys long enough to hug them. “What’s the message in this movie?”, I asked. “There’s no place like home. Now let’s go home.” they answered. For many of us this year, being home together never looked so good, so comforting, so ordinary.
Last month our book group read The Submission, a novel by Amy Waldman.
I’ll be honest. I was lukewarm about reading a novel about the September 11 memorial. But, this is one of the most compelling stories I’ve read in a long time.
The writing is brilliant. In fact, I enjoyed the book so much I read it cover to cover on one rainy Sunday afternoon.
During our discussion, our book group found many tangents and avenues to explore. Hearing my friends’ memories of what happened that day and how life was different was a small gift I wasn’t expecting. The discussion made me appreciate our friendship and the connection that comes from expressing reactions and opinions around not just a book about a memorial, but the story about how one event impacts life.
Watching the memorial service live and seeing the children who lost parents and family members read the names of those who were lost brings the reality of the tragedy back to life. My heart goes out to everyone who lost a loved one on 9/11.
The world is so much different today: communications happen in real time around the world. Anyone can go live and communicate on a multitude of networks all at once. It’s up to each of us to share our light.
During the memorial service, a family member reading names of those lost said, “One of the most heartbreaking goodbyes is when a person hasn’t finished their story.” Keep writing yours.
Image from the 2010 Butterfly Collection by Barbara Rozgonyi
What a roller coaster ride this year has been. Looking back at how one tragic event can change the world, this year we’ve had multiple events to respond to: globally, nationally, locally and maybe even personally. One theme: people come closer and movements inspire change for the good.
How has your communications planning changed this year?