On September 11, Merrill Lynch found itself forced out of its corporate headquarters in lower Manhattan, with no access to the communications infrastructure the public relations staff needed to get vital information out to internal and external audiences. The financial services giant turned to longtime partner Medialink, using the multimedia company’s studios to broadcast messages from Merrill’s chairman and CEO. A month later, Jim Wiggins, first vice president corporate communications for Merrill Lynch, was at Medialink headquarters in New York for a webcast that discussed the company’s response to a tragedy that hit very close to home.
Much of the company’s New York City global headquarters is located in three buildings around the periphery of what is now called “Ground Zero.” Merrill Lynch has two buildings to the west in the World Financial Center, one building directly to the east on lower Broadway. Says Wiggins, “All of us working in those buildings that morning became eyewitnesses to the horror and destruction that would unfold.
“None of us will ever forget the sound of the jet engines, the sound of those explosions, the horror of the fireball, what we witnessed.” Immediately, the company began to evacuate all three buildings, safely evacuating about 9,000 people. Only later would Merrill learn that three of its people were lost at the World Trade Center, including media relations specialist Bob McIlvaine, who had been there for a meeting.
Wiggins first tried to call his wife, but his cell phone wasn’t working. He walked a mile north and picked up his daughter from high school, then walked a couple of blocks and picked up his other two children from lower school, and took them all home. “As we were moving north through Manhattan, the towers collapsed, but we were a safe distance from that when it happened.”
Then he tried to get in touch with colleagues. “We didn’t know where anyone was. Fortunately, we had a large headquarters facility in Princeton. So working through my colleagues down there, I was able to locate the people in New York, the communications team in New York, find out where they were and get back into contact with them. The corporation put together a sort of a rolling conference call where all of our executives would participate. That way, we were able to get looped back into the management of the company, to have our communications people looped in.”
With its people safe, the company faced an enormous challenge. People needed information, but there was no easy way to deliver it. Says Wiggins, “All of our systems, all of our normal systems were gone. We had no phone. We had no e-mail. We had no offices. Cell phones worked sporadically. We had no access to phone numbers and files and media lists, and we only had sporadic information coming to us in order to communicate.”
But the company regrouped quickly. “We faced down our fears and anger and anguish over what had happened, the death and destruction that we had witnessed, and we made a conscious decision to be a leader,” says Wiggins. “We communicated a strong message of strength, of confidence and compassion. It was important for us to do so, not just for our business and for our brand, but also as a symbol of the global financial system. We felt we had to stand up at Merrill Lynch and give a very strong message.”
That message was communicated through every means available, including the company’s website and the media—which became a valuable conduit to employees and others.
“Maybe we should have, but we never contemplated the extent of disruption that we would face in this particular instance,” says Wiggins. “The Internet and the website capabilities we have turned out to be a godsend. They proved extraordinarily resilient and we were able to use them very quickly to become a main source of information conveyance during those early days.
“We also relied very heavily on the media, the general media. We made a decision that we would need to use the media to communicate directly to all of our audiences. Our most senior executives, our chairman and our president, were prepared to make themselves available to the media. We were present on all of the major programs: Wall Street Week on TV, 60 Minutes, and Good Morning America. We were visible in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and Fortune. We clearly used the media as a way to communicate on top of everything else.”
In the process, Wiggins says, he learned four major lessons.
The first lesson: “You are never really prepared for a crisis of this magnitude, so be prepared to improvise. No matter how prepared you think you are for a crisis, you can have plans, you can have contingencies, you can have backup systems, you can have practice drills, whatever you do, when something of this magnitude hits, there’s no way you can be prepared for it. The disruption that you face, the roadblocks that you face as a communicator, outstrip your ability ever to imagine it. 
“So, what you have to do is really be prepared and as I said, you improvise.  In American football jargon, you have to call audibles from the line of scrimmage. You have to make it up as you go along using every means available to you and some that you never thought you would use. The risk of a misstep in this kind of environment is very high. So, it’s critically important that you rely on the highest degree of professionalism that you have in your organization.”
The second lesson: “In a crisis your team is everything. A crisis, very quickly, overruns any one person’s ability to respond, to deal with it, to think fast enough, no matter how skilled and experienced that individual might be. You have to depend on your team and teamwork in ways that you never anticipated.
“So the best way to prepare for a crisis is to prepare your team. Hire the best people, train them, practice working together, learn each other’s jobs, get to know each other, get to trust each other, get to the point where you can finish each other’s sentences, because that’s what you’re going to end up doing, speaking in shorthand and relying on your team.”
Among those who played a vital role for Merrill Lynch were Claudia Kahn, the company’s chief operating officer; Rich Silverman, who led the media relations effort; Anita Contini and Tim Everitt in the events group; Martin Wise in investor relations; Kerri Devine in executive communications; and senior vice president Paul Critchlow. 
The third lesson: “You need to communicate every way through every medium. You need to communicate all the time and you need to have a clear and focused message. In a crisis like this, our traditional media were knocked out. No phone, no e-mail.
“We have a video network that broadcasts daily programming to our 600 plus offices around the United States and frequently internally.  The studio was rendered useless for us in one of the buildings that we had to evacuate, the one building that was most badly damaged for us.  We were able to get the video network back up and running in very quick order, thanks, in part, to the help from our friends at Medialink who were enormously valuable to us in this process. 
“We needed to fill the gaps through some very unconventional uses of the media that were available to us. We commandeered all of our Internet sites. Like many companies, we have a number of different sites, some of them externally aimed, other Intranet sites for our employees. We commandeered all of those sites and they became the main conduit for basic information during the initial days of the crisis. We put a daily update of information on all the sites and we had to adapt them for uses that they weren’t initially intended for. But the Internet proved to be a very strong communications link, particularly in the beginning. 
“We did some things that we would never have imagined. You are all familiar with recorded telemarketing messages. We’ve all been annoyed by them at dinnertime. We recorded a telemarketing message with our CEO, David Komansky. It was a message of reassurance and gave out phone numbers that our employees could call for assistance and information, and we played that out via a telemarketing service to all of our employees in the greater New York area.”
The company focused on repeating two key messages:

       First, the company’s financial strength, and the fact that client assets were safe and sound. Says Wiggins, “The worse thing that can happen in a crisis like this is fears of financial instability at our company and generating a run on the bank. That did not happen.”

       Second, that the company was up and running and doing business around the world, that it was working actively with government and industry and regulatory authorities to get the markets back up and running.
The fourth lesson: “Our clients and employees are incredibly smart and decent people. Invariably, they will do the right thing and be an enormous source of strength in a crisis.
“This was overwhelming to us; the acts of bravery, compassion and human decency that we saw and we experienced in the aftermath of this tragedy. Our clients, their first concern was not their financial affairs or their trading of stocks and bonds. Their first concern was the people of Merrill Lynch. Are my representatives ok? Are you at Merrill Lynch ok?  That came through loud and clear in so many ways.”
A letter came to Merrill president Stan O’Neil, from a client of David Brady, one of the financial advisors who was lost in the tragedy. The client said, “I relied on David’s wisdom, compassion and support as much as my own father’s.” The letter called him “… a dream-maker. He helped my family and many others realize our dreams.”
Says Wiggins, “I spoke to this individual after he sent that wonderful letter. He said he did it in part because he wanted a written record so that David Brady’s children would know this man in some way as they grew up. It was very moving to us.
“Our own employees were incredibly brave and dedicated. Our security and medical people on the site were pulling people out of the rubble, administering first aid. One of our investment bankers walking to work stumbled across an individual who had been severely burned in the first attack and literally got him to a ferry and across the river to New Jersey so he could get medical care and saved his life.
“Our people worked literally around the clock to get us up and running. We had to recreate our trading floors across the river from New York in Jersey City, New Jersey. This was a feat that almost defies description. We were up and running the Monday the markets opened at almost 100 percent capacity and we wouldn’t have believed that possible just a day or two earlier.”
But if the crisis brought out the best in customers and employees, it clearly brought out the worst in others. Says Wiggins, “Early on, we heard of a scam where people were calling Merrill Lynch clients saying, ‘Your account information at Merrill Lynch has been destroyed. We need your account number.’ This was a scam. No employee account information was destroyed. These people were trying to obviously defraud some of our clients by getting their account numbers.”
That raised some delicate issues. Merrill didn’t want to overplay the problem, which could create anxiety where it was not warranted or to create potential for copycat activity, but it did want to let the media know the claims were false, that no client records were destroyed and no one from Merrill Lynch would ask customers for their account number in a call that came out of the blue.
The company also had to deal with erroneous information in the media. Merrill was formerly housed in a building adjacent to the World Trade Center, called One Liberty Plaza. That building was rumored to be on the verge of collapse and a number of news outlets were calling it the Merrill Lynch Building, “so we moved very quickly with all of the media to make it clear that we were not in that building, that it was not our building,” says Wiggins. “You just have to be extremely attuned to what is being reported and be very reactive to correct this information. You’ll never get it all, but it’s amazing, you can get a lot of it.”
Going forward, Wiggins says, the company has changed its communications strategy to focus on reassuring customers.
“I would say the investment environment was difficult before September 11. It’s even more difficult and uncertain after September 11. So, we have changed all of our advertising in the private client business to focus on how investors need to be approaching the markets, approaching their investment portfolios in extremely uncertain environments. So, we rethought all of our advertising materials and our public relations activities will certainly parallel that.”
Wiggins says the company did not want to look overly commercial in the days and weeks following the attacks, but that the company needed to get back to business. Merrill did polling and held discussions with clients, and decided a month after the tragedy that the time was right to resume advertising.
“For many years, we’ve been known as the company that, here in the United States, the company that’s bullish on America. You’ll see the bullish on America theme come back in our communications over the next several weeks.”