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 in Crisis Communications | 21 comments
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