No Time to Ponder – Communicating in the Aftermath of 9/11

-Chris Orris

No Time to Ponder

“Why did they do it? Didn’t matter. How did they do it? Didn’t matter.”

One can only imagine the kinds of questions going through the heads of Ryan Yantis and his co-workers while on duty at the Pentagon the morning of September 11, 2001. But nobody on staff had the luxury of pondering anything but the most important questions the moment after the Pentagon was hit. How to get to safety, where to look for the injured and caring for them took precedence over anything else.

As any American knows, that day had many heroes, Ryan included. But when all that could be done had been done to help those involved in the attack, the communications team had a job to do. They had months of press releases to write and media queries to handle. The next month would be the busiest they had ever had. And they had just lost their offices. Ryan detailed the aftermath and the difficulties in communicating in the aftermath of 9/11 to the chapter at the October 11th meeting.

Roll Up Your Sleeves

Ryan Yantis worked for the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs (OCPA). Following the attack, Ryan and his team had to scramble to find a place to work. After moving from office to makeshift office, the “Wandering Tribe” settled in a room that barely fit the personnel and what little resources they had. The team worked in what became known as “The Cave” with access to two computers and no cell phones.

Few tools and fewer places to work would make things hard for any public relations/affairs team. But Ryan and the rest of the Personnel and Human Resources team had to work under these conditions while handling the biggest national crisis in the history of the United States. Ryan and his partner used the two computers to read unrelenting email requests and monitor the media while delegating tasks to other workers with phones and only the most basic of office materials.

Nobody on the team took a day off for 37 days.

Making Big News

Following the first Pentagon memorial that took place one month after the fact, the OCPA knew it was in for the long haul. Ryan and the rest of the OCPA knew that a more important milestone lay ahead. “It’s the firsts – the first Thanksgiving with an empty chair,  the empty plate. Those were going to be significant.”

Ryan Yantis, Army Public Affairs Officer, Details the Events of 9/11 From His Perspective From Inside the Pentagon

Plans began for the one year memorial of the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon. Ryan and the others had to ensure that the anniversary of the tragedy would be represented as thoroughly as possible. This meant a year’s worth of training generals for the media, gathering quotes from survivors, establishing an online presence and a million other tasks that come with telling the story of a nationwide tragedy.

They also needed to establish a method of evaluation for after the campaign. They set several objectives in their plan: increasing the Army’s “voice” within the top 25 mainstream magazines/dailies, engage the media with Army themes and values, involve 90% of Army command in the campaign and have 90% of the work done two days before 9/11 so that the entire team could attend the memorial service. Ryan stressed the last point in particular; the need to take care of their own, who lost friends, colleagues, and loved ones on that day. In addition to meeting these objectives, they wanted a way to validate the campaign’s success in the eyes of other PA/PR experts. With many of the professionals involved being members of PRSA, they decided on an award with which all of us should be familiar: The prestigious Silver Anvil.

To begin, the OCPA researched how the Army and other military branches’ key messages were relevant to the terrorist attacks. Plenty of connections were obvious, but it was imperative to have ready any information that made the Army’s message more valid. They took this data and other facts compiled about the event and combined them with Army values and core messages to develop clear, positive and informative points for use throughout the campaign.

In dealing with the media, the team created a corps of people involved with the attacks who could speak. A large variety of speakers both military and civilian were assembled, so that any reporter with any request could speak to someone relevant to their needs. A reporter in the Midwest reporting on a citizen’s reaction to the attacks could be connected to a married couple in Chicago with a New York firefighter son. A rural reporter looking to speak to a soldier could be transferred to one who grew up just 30 miles from the news station. With an established set of connections, Ryan’s team made the greatest heroes of the Pentagon just a phone call away.

But getting said heroes to talk about their exploits was a different challenge. As Ryan put it, the Army is not about “I or me. It’s about us and we.” Men and women who did heroic things at the Pentagon didn’t want to catch any praise that might steal the limelight from their co-workers or the Army as a whole. In the Army, this was a ubiquitous challenge that Ryan and the others had to overcome by assuring such heroes that the things they did on the 11th were not trivial, no matter how it was framed, and that it was to the benefit of the Army to be proud and outspoken about their efforts with regards to the media.

One Year Later

The campaign met and greatly exceeded its objectives. Of the original list of key media identified, 80% of the top 25 dailies and 70% of the top news shows ran coverage of the Army during the week of 9/11’s one year anniversary. Over 600 feature stories on 9/11 appeared with mentions of core Army values. Not 90%, but 97% of major Army command participated in the coverage. And perhaps best of all, most of the work was done in time for the team to attend the official Pentagon memorial off-duty.

Exceeding each of their goals by so much was most likely validation enough for those on the team. But to make it clear that the campaign had been a success, the Army was awarded PRSA’s Silver Anvil in 2003. The professional organization recognized that the OCPA had done a magnificent job in honoring every life lost and every sacrifice made as a result of the terrorist attacks.

Ryan Yantis is a retired US Army lieutenant colonel and principal at Yantis Consulting, a public relations and crisis mitigation firm in the Chicago area.

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