Twenty-one years ago, today, we remember how 9/11 changed the world – and communications. Where were you on September 11?
Reflecting on How 9/11 Immediately Impacted Community PR and Communications
On September 9, 2001, we celebrated a child’s seventh birthday party. Walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago beside eight ecstatic and effusively ebullient children, I remember thinking how carefree, jubilant, and fun life can be. Two days later the world would change, dramatically and forever.
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 pantsuit 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 her 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 wasn’t interested in 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 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.
I stopped doing updates somewhere along the way. Not because 9/11 was no longer significant, but because the distance from the event was getting farther away. And, new experiences to respond to keep coming up.
What would I do differently today?
Twenty years later, we have social media channels that reach everyone immediately. It’s important to have a crisis PR plan in place. You never know when you’ll need it. I’ll never forget the immediate impact 9/11 had on community communications and I’ll always remember the power of healing that comes through caring communications with each other.
Those happy little kids from 21 years ago are now adults. Recently one of them commented on the loss of innocence, the happy-go-lucky feelings they remembered having before September 11. The events of that day truly changed our worlds forever. The need for responsive and healing communications is greater now than ever.
How does September 11 continue to change your world – and your work?
About the Author: Barbara is an inspiring keynote speaker, social media LinkedIn sales trainer, and a business development coach. For more ideas and resources, visit Barbara’s top 50 marketing and PR blog, wiredPRworks. Although Barbara loves LinkedIn, she doesn’t work for the company.
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