Surviving and Moving On
This past Sunday, Sept. 11, as I joined millions of others in reflecting on and honoring those lost in the 9/11 attacks, I boarded a plane with a bit of trepidation. Flying on this day was not ideal, but necessary. My heart was pounding as I stepped aboard but I soldiered on. This single-minded determination to overcome fear now has me reflecting on that day in 2001 when our lives were changed forever – and our agency as well – and we soldiered on with resolve and more than a little introspection.
On September 11, 2001, I was in my fourth year with Fineman PR, then already 13 years old. It was 6 a.m. PDT and I was at home, getting ready for work. Little did I know that from that hour, my life – and life in America – would never be the same.
At the time, I was commuting on BART between the East Bay and San Francisco. My husband was already out the door. During his commute, he was listening to the radio and heard that the World Trade Center in New York had “exploded.” He called to tell me to turn on the news.
I flipped on the TV and saw one of the World Trade Center towers with a plume of black smoke. It was surreal. The news reported that a plane had flown into the tower, but little else was known. I decided to quell my fears and head into work.
When I boarded the BART train, it was eerily deserted. I arrived in the city and had a spooky feeling walking downtown to our office building. Hardly anyone was on the street, and only three people showed up at the office – including me and my boss, agency founder Michael Fineman. I didn’t know what to do. By then, a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and another had flown into the Pentagon. It was suspected that a plane destined for SFO was headed for downtown San Francisco, possibly the Transamerica building, possibly BART, neither far from our office.
Like many other offices, we had turned the lights off to avoid attracting attention, so we sat there in the half light, nervously watching the news and waiting, speculating where/when another plane might strike. The uncertainty was unnerving. And the silence deafening. Like many businesses, we closed the office early.
Officials were discouraging people from taking public transportation and now that I was 35 miles from home, I felt trapped. What made the situation worse was the sinking feeling that I might be pregnant. My life was passing in front of me, I was panicked and didn’t know if I would live to see another day.
When I finally made it home we sat in disbelief, glued to the TV watching for any developments. I cried and cried, wondering how I could possibly bring a baby into a world where such horrific acts were possible.
From then on, no one felt safe. Everyone canceled travel. People stuck close to home and sought solace and comfort among friends and family. What once had seemed important now felt trivial.
Later, our agency reviewed all planned programming with a critical eye. With many in our nation’s media based so close to Ground Zero, we were especially sensitive to if/when/how we might reach out, in light of the aftermath that they were living and breathing first-hand every day.
One of our clients at the time, outdoor sporting goods retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), was on the eve of launching a holiday gift-giving campaign involving new products. There was talk of canceling any outreach because of its commercial nature, but we counseled another approach, one that got to the core of our client’s business. On the client’s behalf, we commissioned a survey to assess the services REI could provide during the holiday season and gauge Americans’ beliefs about the role the outdoors played in their lives. The survey clearly indicated that Americans value the time they spend outdoors and place great faith in its restorative powers.
Following one of the greatest atrocities on U.S. soil, we found that 70 percent of Americans said they planned to head outdoors during the holiday season, a move that nine out of 10 reported relieves stress and lifts their spirits.
We released the results to coincide with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI’s) Nov. 10-12 “Weekend of Unity, Hope and Healing” around Veterans Day, during which DOI waived entrance fees at all the federal lands it oversees. DOI also invited state and county parks to join in, and many did.
While we did not highlight REI products in announcing the survey results, we did include the finding that seven out of 10 Americans said gifts related to outdoor activities and experiences would be especially meaningful and would promote family togetherness. Sharing the results of the survey struck a chord with the nation’s media, which gave the story wide coverage. At the time, the REI Denver manager was quoted saying, “The survey confirmed that REI’s role of helping people to have great outdoor experiences was an important one at that time.” He said, “We will particularly look at our clinics and events over the next few months to see what more we can do to help people get outside.” And they did. Today, REI remains a trusted resource for outdoor activities and gear.
Last year, for my son’s 13th birthday, I took him to New York City and we visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum. We took a guided tour and met people who were there that day. Seeing that first-hand made me truly comprehend what an awful day in history 9/11 had been, especially for New Yorkers. As painful as it was to relive that day, it was also incredibly moving to meet a survivor – now a museum docent – and have him guide us through displays of storefronts still covered with ash, people’s torn shoes and papers in the street, video of people jumping from buildings to avoid burning to death, and the staircase down which some – including him – escaped on that awful day. To read the stories of the people lost made it more real and helped my son truly understand and feel the magnitude of 9/11 far beyond the pages of his history books.
On the professional side, looking back from the perspective of 15 years, I see even better how being mindful of our audience and timing, using tact and showing respect helped our client. Our approach was sound and principled then – as it remains today.