Like many others watching the World Trade Center towers collapse on their television sets or their office windows, Reggie Dance did not think immediately about public relations. As he stood in the office of MWW Group chief executive Michael Kempner, across the river from the twin towers in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and struggled to absorb the enormity of the tragedy he had witnessed, he did not think immediately of his biggest client, the owners and operators of McDonald’s restaurants throughout the tri-state area.
But the McDonald’s owners were thinking, not of themselves but of what they could do to assist in the relief efforts. “To McDonald’s credit, they came to us,” says Dance, an account executive who has been with MWW for about nine months. “They wanted to get involved. They didn’t want us to publicize it—it was just a very sincere effort to help out—but they needed help getting it organized.”
By Thursday, a McDonald’s mobile unit was set up as close to ground zero as it could get, and the company was handing out Big Macs and fries and sodas to exhausted and hungry rescue workers. And MWW account staff, including Dance, was pitching in, not to publicize the company’s efforts but to hand out food and drink.
“The amazing thing about helping out was the reaction of the rescue workers,” says Dance, who says he handed out “literally thousands” of sodas during a shift that lasted from 5.30am to 3pm. “The rescue workers were saying thank you and god bless you and I was thinking it really was the other way around, that they were the ones who deserved out thanks, but they were so grateful.” The rescue workers, he says, “were in pretty good spirits.”
McDonald’s has already handed out 250,000 meals in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, and Dance estimates that more than half of MWW’s 100-plus New York and New Jersey employees—including Kempner himself—have volunteered for the food distribution, and that many more will do so in the future, since McDonald’s has vowed to remain there as long as the recovery effort is underway—which some experts believe could be as long as six months.
The fast food company is also helping to collect letters from school children to the rescue workers. The tri-state owners and operators have a long-standing relationship with educators through their Arching Into Education sponsorship, and are collecting the letters, that are delivered on a daily basis via the nine 45-foot mobile units that dispense the company’s food and drink. Rescue workers take the letters and read them and draw on them for emotional sustenance, Dance says.
MWW plans to maintain its commitment too. Says Dance, “Michael Kempner has made it clear that MWW will help any way it can. He’s made it clear that even after everyone gets back to normal we need to continue looking at what we can do to sustain our efforts. Six months or a year from now, there will still be kids who lost parents in this disaster who need help and we want to be sure that we are still there to help them then.”
While MWW’s employees have been providing physical nourishment, Bill Southard has been in the forefront of the effort to provide emotional sustenance. Southard, president and CEO of Southard Communications, is a member of the board of directors of the Mental Health Association of New York, which has played a major role in helping the city’s residents handle the tragic events of September 11.
Southard and his staff, which works on a pro-bono basis for the MHA, have spent hours over the last two weeks counseling the MHA on communications issues. The firm has offered MHA experts to local and national media outlets, with interviews appearing in The New York Times and Newsweek and on ABC. Southard is working on “how to” articles, opinion editorials and weekly news updates to keep the general public informed and aware of services and resources available.
“The emotional implications of this terrorist attack are devastating,” he says. “The ongoing role of the Mental Health Association will be significant both in the short and long-term. And our efforts, while now extremely intense, will continue. Like America’s upcoming military actions, this needs to be a long and sustained effort.”
While Southard was working with the MHA, employees of RF Binder Partners, the Ruder Finn spin off launched earlier this year, were working with the New York Blood Center.
On the morning of the tragedy, seven of the firm’s employees decided to walk to the center on 67th Street to donate blood. “As we approach the center, we were amazed and heartened to see thousands of volunteer donors ahead of us lined up for blocks,” says agency president Amy Binder. Her colleague David Kalson, who once had the Blood Center as an employee, worked his way inside to volunteer the PR skills of the RF Binder people.
“We felt communications skills would be needed at least as much as blood, given the enormous logistical problem of processing thousands more people in a shorter period of time than the Blood Center
had ever seen,” says Binder. “Near pandemonium reigned inside and out.”
Kalson found the Blood Center’s CEO, Dr. Robert Jones and offered to help organize the massive influx of donors. The PR team then went to work with Blood Center transfusion managers to create a system of color-coded numbering that would bring people with much-needed O-negative blood to the head of the line for transfusion and give everyone else a numbered ticket by which they could be better managed. When it became apparent that the system was working, the head of transfusion service asked the team to set up a similar system at other Blood Centers, where they ran into employees from sister agency Ruder Finn, who immediately joined the team.
In Washington, D.C., too, there was concern about the emotional impact of the attacks, and at Widmeyer Communications, a public affairs firm with a strong focus on educational issues, there was  a particular concern about how children might be affected. Two employees, Christy Lynn Wilson and Marjie Schachter, took time off two days after the attacks to visit a local elementary school.
Says Wilson, “We went to help students process their feelings about the events and to help them construct a tribute quilt to honor the teachers and students whose lives were lost in the tragedies. The students expressed a range of emotions, but all were keenly aware that something terrible had happened to our nation. One student had lost her uncle in the Pentagon attack. Several students said they felt very sorry for the families who had lost loved ones. Many were still hoping the missing would be found alive and unhurt. In making the quilt, they were proud to be able to help comfort the families of victims.”
Wilson says she was grateful to Widmeyer for the opportunity to use her time and experience to help out. “By allowing us to reach out this way, my firm reached out to me and allowed me to feel useful instead of helpless,” she says.
At ChandlerChicco Agency, which spent the week after the crisis preparing sandwiches for rescue workers, principals Bob Chandler and Gianfranco Chicco hosted an “early thanksgiving” for staff. Chicco cooked pasta, and other employees brought in turkey and trimmings. At the same time, says Chicco, “We are setting up teams of volunteers that can work side by side doing whatever it takes, from media relations for the Red Cross to helping the Salvation Army. We are giving employees time off from client work to volunteer.” The firm is also matching employee contributions on a two-to-one basis.
Belsito & Company, a small boutique firm specializing in healthcare communications, donated $20,000 to the rescue and relief efforts, and promised to match employee donations—raising another $5,000 that way. Employees have also volunteered to provide media relations support to the Red Cross, and has offered free office space, computers, and equipment to companies displaced by the attacks. “We can easily accommodate seven or eight people,” says agency founder and president Marybeth Belsito.
Nichol & Company, another New York agency, canceled its 20th anniversary party, scheduled for the Thursday following the attack, and donated the money to funds that help the families of missing police and firefighters. And Yecies Associates also offered office space and made a cash and goods donation to the firefighters’ groups.
Even firms thousands of miles away from ground zero have been pitching in. In Silicon Valley, Citigate Cunningham is matching any contributions by employees to organizations directly contributing to the aid and support of victims and those who are providing search, rescue and care of victims. A number of employees have already donated blood and the firm is endeavoring to make doing so more convenient by arranging a donation opportunity in or near each of its offices.
Another west coast technology firm, The Horn Group, closed its office the day or the tragedy, then returned to hang giant U.S. flags in its office and get back to work. The firm set up a fund for donations to the Red Cross and matched employee contributions, raising about $3,000 to date.
At Carter Ryley Thomas in Richmond, employees were given time off so they could give blood, and contacted the Virginia Blood Service to arrange a blood drive in its parking lot. Then the firm came together with other Virginia companies to help found the September 11 Victims’ Relief Fund, creating all press materials for the Fund and handling media outreach.
Agency founder Mark Raper says the firm considered canceling its staff retreat, scheduled for the weekend of September 22, but decided to go ahead. The decision was a difficult one, says Raper, “We talked to staff in regional offices. We tried to measure their emotions and fear, and compare that to staff benefits of previous retreats. Our retreats are almost like family reunions, and considering the tragedy of September 11, we felt having that family time was important.”
In Boston, Cone felt it could best help by offering its services pro bono on behalf of a local synagogue and Islamic Center, which held a joint news conference to announce a joint action to protect civil liberties, resist prejudice, and educate about Islam in the wake of the terrorist attacks against America. The firm crafted messages, created media materials, prepared speakers—most of whom had no prior media experience—and publicized the press conference.