This summer I visited Ground Zero. I was shocked to see that structures were rising out of the familiar four-story-deep hole.
I have read about the smell that emanated for months and sickened many who came to the viewing platform. The smell I experienced reminded me of Houston. It was the aroma of fresh concrete.
The suffering and loss was not lost on me, but I left feeling time clearly is marching on. Even so, the wounds remain fresh for many workers and we, as communicators, need to guide our organizations regarding how to observe the second anniversary of the attack.
The word “appropriate” is extremely important. What workplace observance, if any, is appropriate? How can an organization and its leadership appropriately convey the depth of feeling necessary to capture both the horror and the courage we witnessed? These questions deserve special consideration.
The pitfalls are obvious, despite an organization’s best intentions. For instance, last year I remember an ad for a New York-themed restaurant promoting an event for September 11. It encouraged people to come and celebrate the city with a portion of proceeds being donated to a fund for the families of Houston’s firefighters. Their heart was in the right place, but it still made me uneasy. We’re talking about events that left thousands of people dead, after all. I’m not ready for a celebration and may never be.
Of course, employers should not attempt to dodge taking a role in marking the anniversary. What we experienced two years ago was profoundly work-centered. Nearly all of those who lost their lives were working at the time - whether they were victims or the heroes who strived to save them. Most of the employees of our companies learned about the attacks while at work during what became a dizzying two hours of horrific updates. Afterward, the role of the workplace and how it defines us was altered as many Americans reassessed priorities.
Remembering how workers came together on that morning - congregating around cubicles and crowding around television sets - has convinced me that employers have a responsibility to communicate to their workers, customers and suppliers. As public relations practitioners, we should urge our organizations to define the meaning of what’s been endured and provide a vision for how this shared experience will make us better at what we do and who we are. It cannot and will not be business as usual on September 11, 2003.