What Would YOU Do? (Case Study: Crisis Communications)

What if...you and your colleagues labored for years to fund, design and (finally) open your highly-visible museum (or cause/issue-focused organization)?

What if—because the museum’s reason for being is so close to folks’  hearts and heads—the design and build is highly scrutinized for the many years it takes to launch?

And what if, when the museum finally opens, it gets hammered with criticism because….you’ve been creative, resourceful and realistic in terms of budget needs and sustainability, building in revenue streams from a good restaurant, a gift shop and private event hosting ? Or—really—because the museum’s focus is SO sensitive.

This is exactly the position that The National September 11 Memorial & Museum finds itself in right now. What would you do? 

I’ve been following this nonprofit marketing reality show carefully, because there’s so much to learn for all of us. And I’m impressed by the way the Memorial & Museum’s President and CEO, Joe Daniels, has responded each and every time.

Here’s the thing—there’s just no winning this one.

The Memorial & Museum is just the current focus of survivors, families, responders and others who care deeply about the lives lost, injured and forever changed by the terrorism of 9/11. Many of these folks are family members of those who died or were injured, but all of them are (understandably) grieving, angry and want to fight back. The Memorial Museum is the current focus of those very strong feelings, which is natural, but its an untenable position. What would you do?

Joe Daniels has shown marvelous great skill and steadiness in responding, not reacting. Joe and his communications team were clearly prepared for this predictable (and understandable) response. He’s:

  • Focused on the value of the revenue initiatives in supporting the memory of and, in fact, honoring all victims of the 9/11 attacks.
  • Speaks clearly, accessibly and succinctly, staying on message and on mission. Daniels continually emphasizes that the gift shop, restaurant and event hosting are necessary to sustain the Museum (and thus honor and respect the memory of those killed and injured). That without these revenue streams, there would be no Museum.
  • Has asked, trained and supported colleagues and partners to do the same, deferring to him. The Museum cafe is run by beloved New York City restaurateur, Danny Meyer. To begin with, Meyer is a great and active NYC citizen. When asked about the backlash he’s received for opening a good restaurant on sacred ground, Meyer deferred to Daniels, who said: “We get no operating assistance from Washington. And so until we do, we will have to raise money to run the museumand it is absolutely appropriate to thank donors who gave hundreds of millions of dollars and others, including family members, who worked so hard to make the museum a reality.”
  • Gotten the word out via multiple channels and formats, to reach people wherever they are touching the Museum. “’All net proceeds from our sales are dedicated to developing and sustaining” the museum, reads a notice at the store and online, where items are also sold. “Thank you for helping to build a lasting place for remembrance, reflection, and learning for years to come,”’ according to the New York Post.

Kudos to Joe Daniels and team for anticipating, planning and training folks to respond productively to these tough charges. I can’t imagine him doing any better, but I bet some of you have good suggestions for the Museum and other organizations in this kind of “just-can’t-win” position.

What would you do? Please share your ideas, recommendations and related experiences here. Thank you.

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Nancy Schwartz on May 28, 2014 in Crisis Communications | 21 comments
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  • Ann

    I have followed the development of this story and felt as it unfolded in the media it was going to be a no win situation. I agree it has been handled perfectly, not sure there is anything I would suggest be done differently but would add if it has not already been addressed Mr. Daniels needs to be aware that the negative comments and atmosphere will effect his staff if he doesn’t find ways to let them express their feelings. Individuals who work hard for a cause and feel all they get is criticism need an outlet for their frustration.

  • Good point – just to ensure I understand your meaning, Ann – you mean ensuring that staff and leadership are welcomed to share their frustration internally – so it doesn’t seep out externally and, most importantly, to ensure their job satisfaction?

  • Ann

    Correct, you said it much better than I

  • Guest

    ear Museum Patrons:

    You don’t know how best to make a museum because you visit them sometimes.


    Steve Masler

    Guy who does know how museums work.

  • Steve Masler

    Dear Museum Patrons:

    You don’t know how best to make a museum because you visit them sometimes.


    Steve Masler

    Guy who does know how museums work.

  • I haven’t followed this as closely as others, but it seems like Daniel did everything right. The only thing I might add is that he continue to look for opportunities to have an open discussion about this challenge, just like this blog post.

  • Nicole

    This mindset applies to so many things in our society! I personally feel like social media (facebook, twitter, blogs, etc) is a catalyst in fueling this sense of expertise that everyone feels they have about every subject under the sun. I am personally very intrigued by this article and the comments because I feel it applies closely to my goal of communicating about farming practices. Your response is on-point with a lot of my feelings toward all the people who speak out against agriculture.

  • Good stuff, Nancy! Just shared it on my Libraries Are Essential FB page.

    Talk about a no-win situation…. no way the creators could’ve made everyone happy with this (as proven while designing the memorial site itself). This shows how valuable it is to have a solid marketing communications plan so everyone speaks with one voice.

  • Thanks for starting this discussion. I think the consistency of responding with a message of the high-level goal of sustainability as a way to honor those impacted will help weather the initial storm of emotional reaction. I also like the idea of directing folks to come back to a central person to keep that message tight.

    Tough spot for sure. Imagine the reaction and press coverage however if the place became rundown or even had to close down due to lack of funds. That would be a no win situation for sure.

  • Thanks, Ash. I do think the consistent, logical response will sustain the organization.

    But you’re right in posing the worse-case scenario. Would you ever use that in a crisis communications response?

  • Thanks for sharing with the library community, Kathy!

    A plan (I’m sure some of this was anticipated) IS an absolute must, as is asking, training and supporting folks as effective messengers (or referrers). These folks are doing a great job of that.

  • Interesting idea, John. I did email folks at the Memorial & Museum, asking for their input, but didn’t hear back!

  • Nancy,

    Likely not trying to paint the worst case scenario as much as a clear focus on the future of the project being a vision that is not that. Does that make sense? A sort of implied reference to highlight how the vision is to avoid but focusing on the positive.

    Understanding though how tough it is to focus on a vision for the future when talking about a museum that is so visibly focused on the past in this particular case.

  • Barnea Levi Selavan

    Celebration of life honors the memory of those who attacked sought to destroy joy of life, and the culmination of a society’s constructive business activity. Hence a great restaurant, like there was there- Windows on the World, keeps America’s spirits up and sends a message. I would also open a business center, and encourage deals to be made there, with pics around of those who died at work, and a help center or care center to honor those like the firefighters who gave their life to help.

  • Erika Fitz

    I haven’t been to the museum, so I don’t know the exhibits, but I think that having and emphasizing the museum’s educational role and not just its memorial function would help. People understand that museums have restaurants and gift shops, and that those things bolster the mission of the place (which can be done tastefully) while also providing needed revenue. I believe strongly that it should have an educational component–be a place not just to remember those who died but to try to increase dialogue and understanding for ways that we can create a world with fewer terrorists and less religious extremism. This would make it very like the Holocaust Museum, which has a similarly sober subject, but also an understandable need for revenue streams.

  • That’s a great point, Erika. Context is everything.

  • Appreciate the clarification, Ash!

  • Jenna

    I haven’t follwed this crisis, but from what you have outlined Nancy, it seems that a crucial initial step was missed…. consultative meetings with the survivors, families etc. I would have organised meetings throughout the whole process of the Museum development. This way issues could have been bought up and the CEO could have answered/solved issues then before it gained mass media attention. In this case, the CEO did handle it well, however I think once it reaches the media and they run a story of unhappy survivors and families, it tarnishes the whole purpose of the museum!

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