PR and September 11: Supporting Families, Coping With Loss

By on Friday, September 9, 2011
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 changed everything for Americans and the media this weekend is filled with retrospective lookbacks and reflective commentary. I started getting calls from media about 9/11 related stories in June, so my summer has been interlaced with touchstones reminding me of the impending 9/11 tenth anniversary this Sunday.

I’ve talked with 9/11 families about what they are comfortable with when it comes to media coverage. For many, the anniversary of a death date is a sensitive time. So I’ve encouraged reporters to get their stories and interviews scheduled early, and to realize that sometimes families need space, as much as they want a loved one remembered and honored. We’ve had a few families participate in stories and also shared the story of TAPS and its response efforts to 9/11 and support for the Pentagon families in those immediate days.

I  disappointed one reporter when I couldn’t find the specific situation they were looking for, but figure it was as meant to be. I’d rather work with someone who is open to what really is the situation, rather than a script. I am not a casting agent for tragic drama, but a supporter of people who have been through trauma. Sometimes they want to share their stories – sometimes they need privacy. My role is to help support their decisions and to share stories when we can and it’s appropriate in the media.
My summer public relations intern, Zach Laychak, lost his dad on 9/11 when the Pentagon was hit. He spent the summer tagging news releases for a web CMS transition, helping distribute news releases, drafting press releases, and doing clip research. When I gave his name to the security desk at one our DC area news stations so he could tag along to observe the interview I was doing, the producer asked if he was related to someone who died on 9/11. For these families, their loss is always with them. But many have learned how to find joy and happiness again in their lives. Zach did an interview with American Forces Press Service and has done some others that will likely run this weekend. I’m amazed at his bravery and willingness to share. He’s an amazing person with a bright future ahead of him.

I’ve written and distributed tips to help families grieving losses on 9/11 and in the Global War on Terror that ensued after the attacks, and tips to help the public understand how to better support families who are grieving. I’ve read advice from other pr professionals dealing with the anniversary and its meaning too. Many networks are tredding gently – opting not to run advertising during 9/11 specials and carefully structuring materials to be commemmorative but not overwhelming. I’ll be at a fundraiser tomorrow organized by a friend whose husband died at the Pentagon on 9/11. She reaches out to help others who are grieving more recent losses, and is doing this event as a tribute to her husband, Bob.

And all along, my own feelings have been simmering near the surface – an odd mix of nostalgia, disbelief (is it really 10 years?) and anticipation of the anniversary date. We lived in New York City when I was a teen, with a view of the World Trade Center from our dining room table every night in the Bronx. Some of my high school classmates died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center.

My brother, Chris, died in Iraq in 2007, nearly six years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 9/11 began his generation’s war and led to U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems strange for it to now be a decade. While Chris’s death wasn’t on 9/11, those attacks led to his death and our journey through grief. My feelings about 9/11 and his death are jumbled into a big ball that can’t be untangled entirely. As a PR professional, those feelings come along with me, even as I am working. Hopefully they make me a more compassionate person and advocate – one that never treats something like 9/11 as a typical story – but as a day for honor and remembrance.

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