A Grim Week for New York PR Community
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A Grim Week for New York PR Community

By the end of the week, major PR agencies had not reported any dead or missing, but many were still searching for families, friends, and colleagues in the wake of the terror attack that shook America.

Paul Holmes

NEW YORK—One of the privileges of being the CEO is that you get to choose your own office, your own view. So when Rowland Worldwide moved into space on Hudson Street, Mark Weiss chose an office with a view downtown, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center—some 20 blocks south—dominating the skyline.
 
Weiss was working in his office on Tuesday morning when he heard an explosion. He looked out of his window and “there was an incredible ball of fire coming out of the building,” he says. A few seconds later, his colleague Phil Wirth came into his office and told him what had happened—that a plane had flown into north tower.
 
“We looked through binoculars,” says Weiss. “We couldn’t see a plane, but we could see smoke pouring out of the building.” A small group gathered to watch, then someone yelled out—they had seen a plane flying toward the second tower. “I turned around, and it was heading directly for the building,” says Weiss. “It was the most incredible thing I have ever seen.”
 
When the first tower collapsed, “We felt the tremor when it hit.” Weiss and his staff watched the smoke begin to roll uptown. They heard that their building would be evacuated and gathered by the elevators for an orderly exit. Then they heard that the evacuation had been canceled. They went back inside, and like other New Yorkers, other Americans, other people around the world sat glued to the images of destruction that filled their television screens—and in this case their windows.
 
In the offices of Burson-Marsteller, about 40 blocks north of the World Trade Center, the twin towers are visible from the windows between the firm’s two elevator banks. Receptionists on the top two floors had a clear view through those windows of the famous landmarks, and one saw the first plane fly into the side of the building.
 
“We had a secretary sitting out there who saw the first building get hit,” says chief executive Chris Komisarjevsky. “People gathered at the windows. They saw the second building get hit. The saw the second building collapse. Then they saw the first building collapse. We had people collapse on the floor, just crying.”
 
As soon as the first tower collapsed, Komisarjevsky, called a meeting of the company’s own emergency response team, including representatives of senior management, human resources, operations, internal communications, and building security. Members of the team were on their way to the meeting when the second tower collapsed at 10.29am.
 
“We decided at the first meeting that our people and their safety had to be our number one concern,” says Komisarjevsky. “But communication was our second concern. It was very important to keep our people informed about what was going on and what we were doing as a firm.”
The firm also began reaching out to clients, touching base.
 
“There were two people whose whereabouts we could not immediately account for,” says U.S. president Chet Burchett. “But by the end of the day on Tuesday we had found them. Our priority then was to reach out to those who had friends and families at the World Trade Center.”
 
Meanwhile, further uptown, the staff at Hill & Knowlton was watching too—one with greater anxiety than the others. The firm’s long-time office manager had a son working in one of the twin towers, a daughter in another. A couple of hours after the first crash, her son walked in to the office, but there was no word from her daughter until early in the afternoon. Like many others who escaped the carnage, she had been ferried out of the city to New Jersey for treatment and with her cell phone service knocked out by the disaster had been unable to contact loved ones.
 
At another WPP agency, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, chief financial officer Bill Chess was worrying about his son, who worked in the north tower of the World Trade Center, three floors below where the plane hit. His son survived, suffering smoke from inhalation but otherwise physically intact, but many of his friends apparently did not.
 
At 11am, PR Newswire announced that it was opening its media distribution channels to companies whose crisis communications plans were activated by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center this morning as a public service.
 
“For PR Newswire members whose crisis communication plan has been activated by today's World Trade Center and Washington, D.C. crises, we are making the wire available as a public service without charge,” said the newsletter in an e-mail to members.
 
By early afternoon, Business Wire too had announced it would provide its members with free access to its national media network for crisis communications-related news releases, including announcements related to plant closings, and temporary suspension of operations in specific markets.
 
Employees of BSMG Worldwide had already sprung into action on behalf of two clients, American Airlines and Marriott International, that found themselves at the epicenter of the crisis—American because one of its flights had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, the Marriott because it owns a hotel in the World Trade Center complex.
 
“We were able to get a crisis team to every major airport,” says agency CEO Harris Diamond. “We had people from Long Island who were able to get to airports in the New York region.”
 
United Airlines, meanwhile, is a client of Fleishman-Hillard, which says it had staff working in New York and Chicago on behalf of the carrier, which saw one of its aircraft crash into the second World Trade Center tower and another crash in Pennsylvania.
 
By Tuesday afternoon, Burson-Marsteller had posted a message from Komisarjevsky to its website. “First and foremost, our highest priority over the past five hours has been the safety of our colleagues. I can tell you now that those in New York and Washington are safe. In addition, since we always have some staff traveling, we are doing our best to track down everyone who might even possibly have been en route by air.”
 
Other firms were considering whether to evacuate their offices or stay put.
 
“What we told everyone was to take care of themselves, their families, their loved ones, first,” says Tom Hoog, president of H&K’s U.S. operations.  “The office did stay open, and a lot of people did choose to stay in town, because of the difficulty of getting off the island.”
 
At GCI Group, just a few blocks away, the story was similar. “We told people to do what they needed to do,” says CEO Bob Feldman. The New York office remained open, in part because many people had nowhere to go. Concerned that bridges and tunnels out of the city would not be open, the firm began compiling a list of employees who lived in Manhattan and who were prepared to offer beds to colleagues who lived in other boroughs.
 
“Some people took advantage of those offers,” says Feldman. “Others felt they were able to get home, and wanted to be with family.”
 
At Rowland, meanwhile, employees were told they would have to evacuate the building. They gathered by the elevators for an orderly exit when word came that the evacuation would not be necessary. Many returned to watching the incredible events unfolding just a mile away, but others were anxious to return home to loved ones.
 
“We tried to pair people up,” says Weiss. “I didn’t want anyone trying to make it home alone.”
 
For those who watched the tragedy from out of town, the urge to get back to loved ones was overwhelming.
 
Richard Edelman, president of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, was in Omaha when he heard the news. He watched the disaster on television, realized there would be no air transportation for a while, and set out to drive home. By Thursday he was in Chicago, and by Friday he expected to be back home in New York.
 
(Our own Greg Drury was in Los Angeles when the disaster occurred, having completed a triathlon to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He rented a car Wednesday, and by Thursday morning was in Amarillo. On Friday he called from Tennessee. He arrived home Saturday morning, exhausted.)
 
GCI Group closed its New York office on Wednesday, but was open on Thursday, although as Feldman says, “It’s a slow opening.” He adds that the New York office has come together a couple of times since the disaster. “It’s been very therapeutic for people to share their stories with one another.” The firm also organized its people who wanted to give blood in response to the crisis.
 
Almost every major agency echoed the same sentiment: that it was important to re-open offices as soon as possible, to get back to work, but that there was no pressure on employees to return if they felt family matters had to come first.
 
“I felt very committed to opening,” says Mark Weiss. “As long as we were not in harm’s way, I wanted to get back to business as quickly as possible. It’s an important first step to rebuilding a sense of confidence and normalcy. We have to show our resiliency. We have to demonstrate to our people that there is a secure place they can come.”
 
“I think the capacity to rebound is very much a part of our national character,” says Bob Seltzer. “One of the ways in which you defeat this thing is you go back to normal. A lot of people who are coming into the office today are determined to get back to work.”
 
“Our feeling is we honor the dead by praying for the families,” says Edelman, “but also by getting back to work, by getting back to normal as soon as possible.” Like many other firms, Edelman placed psychological counselors in its larger offices, and agency leaders held meetings with staff to discuss the tragedy and its impact.
 
But if offices were open, it was difficult to business to return to normal. Major firms such as Ogilvy and Porter Novelli International had no telephone service, relying on a combination of e-mail and cell phones to stay in touch with clients and colleagues in other offices. At Ketchum there was disruption of another kind. The firm was open for business on Thursday, but had to evacuate its New York office when someone phoned in a bomb threat to nearby Grand Central Station—one of more than 60 bomb threats in the city that day.
 
“That takes an emotional toll,” says Ketchum chairman Dave Drobis. “Our people are very young. Many of them are not from New York. It’s very difficult for them. We brought in grief counselors and they have been talking to people who have boyfriends or roommates or relatives who work down there.” Drobis, who was in Maine when the disaster struck, says he is proud of the way his firm handled the crisis. “It’s nice to see us practice what we preach.”
 
Bomb scares caused evacuations all over the New York, and in Washington the offices of Burson-Marsteller and other firms were cleared out because of threats.
 
Others were determined to help out with the relief effort in any way they could. Magnet Communications, with offices just one block north of 14th Street—where businesses were shut down for a couple of days—told its people to come in “only if you can make it,” in the words of president David Kratz. Many of those who did come in left their offices to help workers at Chelsea Market, a food market on the building’s ground floor, put together sandwiches and other food packages for the rescue workers.
 
The ChandlerChicco Agency, a healthcare specialist located between 14th and 15th Street, was also pitching in. Agency principal Bob Chandler says staff who came in on Thursday brought in “a lot of food” for police officers and other relief workers in the neighborhood. “We’ve been cooking ham and eggs for the police,” he says.
 
During the day, Chandler and Chicco have been working with one of the firm’s biggest clients, Pfizer, which markets Zoloft, a drug approved for post-traumatic stress. At night, they have been searching for accommodations, since both of them have apartments close to the former World Trade Center, in parts of the city now inaccessible.
 
The most moving thing for most of those who returned to work was the support they received from colleagues many thousands of miles away.
 
“We got an outpouring of e-mails from colleagues and clients all over the world,” says Larry Weber, head of Interpublic’s Allied Communications unit. “The support and concern we received brought everyone closer together.”
 
Drobis says he has seen the same thing. “I have talked to people from all over the world. There has been such a movement toward unity and support. That may end up being the silver lining to all this.”
 
Slowly, agencies began to mobilize on behalf of clients.
 
“The majority of our clients had the same attitude we did,” says H&K’s Hoog. “Let’s forget about business for a while and take care of our people. Business was not the first priority for most of our clients. I don’t believe we billed any hours in New York over the past couple of days.”
 
Where crisis plans were implemented, public relations was often low on the list of priorities. Cantor Fitzgerald, which has 670 missing employees, is a client of Edelman, but it was focused on disaster relief, not PR.
 
Magnet worked with one client that had been displaced from its offices at One Liberty Plaza and another, TJX (parent companies of TJ Max and Marshalls department store chains) that wanted to donate products to the relief effort. Ogilvy, meanwhile, has been working with client TrueValue, which wanted to donate hardware and other supplies to the rescue effort.
 
“We have been helping them get in touch with the Red Cross and figure out to bring this stuff into the city and where it will do most good,” says Seltzer.
 
Ketchum was working with FedEx, which saw its service seriously disrupted by the restrictions placed on air traffic, and with Delta Airlines, as well as with a number of clients that wanted to help with the relief effort.
 
Medialink Worldwide announced it had transformed itself into an international news bureau and was using its communications resources to enable international broadcasters to provide live coverage of the aftermath of the disaster.
 
Says president Larry Moskowitz, “At this time of sadness our international responsibilities as a critical communications provider supersede all other issues. We have been working around the clock to provide broadcasters with the operational and production skills needed to keep their audiences informed on an international level.” He says the firm is also assisting major corporations “in communicating vital emergency information their employees, clients, and the public at large.”
 
At 9.30am on Friday morning, about a dozen emergency team members met in a conference room on the 13th floor of Burson-Marsteller’s New York headquarters, linked by conference call to their counterparts in Washington, D.C. The meeting began with a short statement from Komisarjevksy: “From what you have seen you probably know already that it’s raining here. It’s obviously going to affect the recovery efforts. It’s not going to make things better; it’s going to make them worse.
 
“We are clearly enterting a phase where the physical destruction has taken place and the human tragedy is what we will see from here on.”
 
Komisarjevsky announced that the New York office would be heeding the president’s call for a moment of silence at midday, providing employees with a list of nearby places of worship and also holding its own services, led by U.S. chief executive Chet Burchett, in a second floor conference room. The firm would also provide lunch for employees—as it had every day since Tuesday—at one o’clock.
 
There were reports on members of staff who were still in travel limbo. One woman had been in Salt Lake City, working on an Olympics program, when the attacks occurred. The client was arranging for a van to drive her back to Chicago. Other traveling employees were all accounted for—some were making their way back to the office by car, while others were booked on flights that would hopefully resume later in the day.
 
The company’s intranet has been important in communicating with employees all over the world—posting regular updates as news comes in and carrying daily messages from Komisarjevksy and Burchett—and in helping employees from around the world send their own messages to B-M people in New York and Washington. The intranet will also be used to encourage people to share their travel plans—business and personal—so the firm knows where its employees are at all times.
 
There was a report on new safety measures, including the fact that 1,250 face masks had been ordered for the building’s occupants. And parts of the fourth and fifth floors of the firm’s headquarters had been cleared for use by a client displaced by the attacks. Telephones, modems, and faxes were up and running, and 25 cubicles had been set up. A conference room was being prepared.
 
“The tone in the building has changed,” says Kay Fynmore, the company’s director of human resources for New York. “I think people have come to realize that those who are missing are probably not just missing; they have perished. We have identified all the people who have friends or family who are missing, and we are getting back to those people, keeping in contact with them. We want to make sure they know what support is available to them.
 
“Otherwise, our biggest focus is on volunteer efforts. People are very keen to come together and do something.” A volunteer meeting on Thursday afternoon had attracted 37 people, and two initiatives were launched: the first, to raise money and the second to collect water and canned goods and other useful products for relief workers. Several employees had taken up a collection for workers at New York Hospital. Others had taken T-shirts downtown to relief workers.
 
The firm was also focused on helping its clients help the city. Says Jim Fitzgerald, a former city employee who joined B-M last year, “One of the things that’s clear is that there a lot of folks who would like to assist but are struggling with how to best get involved, who they should contact. We have been working with them on that.”
 
The firm has also been working to create a central website for the city. The site, scheduled to launch on Friday afternoon, includes five sections: medical, which provides information on blood donations and grief counseling; products, which lets companies know what kind of products—everything from bottled water to bandages—are needed; money, which focused on cash donations; volunteers; and jobs, asking people to provide temporary work for the thousands of people who have been displaced by the disaster—many of whom may not be able to return to their regular jobs for 90 days or more.
 
Other agencies were doing what they could to assist the relief effort. Alex Stanton, a principal at Stanton Crenshaw Communications, set up an organization to provide a free information clearinghouse that will find office space for businesses displaced by the World Trade Center attack.
 
Says Stanton, “Underlying the tragic loss of life which has befallen our city and its people is another grim reality—many businesses in the World Trade Center area will be at severe risk if they cannot quickly find office space to house their people.”
 
Stanton says the free information clearinghouse will match offers of immediately available office space with business owners who need it. He says he anticipates demand from people who are looking for “an office or two” to those who need significantly more. And he emphasizes there is no intention to charge a fee or to broker any financial arrangement between the parties.
 
Employees from Stanton Crenshaw were among those who volunteered for the American Red Cross, which needed public relations professionals to field inquiries and get information out in a timely manner. Mark Pasetsky, president of New York’s Mark Allen & Company also pitched in with the Red Cross, after learning of the need for volunteers from our website.
 
A loose coalition of public relations professionals, led by representatives of companies including Widemeyer Communications in Washington, D.C., and KRPR in northern California, has created a group called the Twin Towers Ophan Fund, which will provide “long-term care and support for kids whose parents were lost in the blasts.”
 
Says Widmeyer’s Tim Tinker, “This effort is specifically directed to help the unseen victims of this week’s tragedy, the children of the workers in the buildings and of the parents that were on board the doomed aircraft. As public relations professionals, we are working with out counterparts in the local media to draw attention to this especially deserving group of children. It is simply our way of helping out as best we know how.”
 
“One of the members of our firm did hospital duty on Tuesday night,”” says Michael Weiser, president of The Weiser Group, which has offices in both New York and Chicago. “Another was formerly a decorated New York paramedic. His losses are heavy.”
 
He won’t be the only one.
 
“Our receptionist’s son was on the 105th floor of the North Tower,” says Dorothy Crenshaw of Stanton Crenshaw. “We were here watching with her and thinking nothing could possibly be worse when the unthinkable happened and the towers collapsed.  There is still no word of him.”
 
At BSMG Worldwide, meanwhile, Diamond says many of the firm’s investor relations and financial communications professionals knew “so many people in that part of the city,” many of whom are still missing. At The Torrenzano Group, which specializes in financial communications, there was concern about friends at Cantor Fitzgerald, and about the firm’s client, the Securities Traders Association, which lost its office space in the disaster.
 
“We have several people who have family members in the fire department,” says Lou Capozzi, chairman and CEO at Manning Selvage & Lee. “Like a lot of firms, we had a blood drive. And we are planning a fundraiser for the families of the rescue workers. There’s a feeling that everybody wants to do something to help.”
 
At Porter Novelli, one senior vice president is still waiting for word about her husband, the father of two young children, missing since Tuesday. He is a caterer who worked at the Marriott Hotel in the World Trade Center complex.
 
“We will set up a relief fund for Porter Novelli families who have been affected,” says agency president David Copithorne. “We will also be making donations to external organizations. People around the agency want to do something to help, but didn’t know what to do. There’s been a huge outpouring of support from other offices.”
 
Even those who had not lost loved ones were still reeling from the attack. The offices of Patrice Tanaka & Company remained closed through Friday. And others who had gone back to work are constantly reminded that things will never be quite the same.
 
“When I look up from my computer screen, I look at where the twin towers used to be,” Weiss says. “From time to time the smoke gets a little worse and it looks as though it just happened today. I wish I had a better way of expressing it, but it’s just surreal.”
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