9/11 20 Years On

September 2021
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In the course of creating a special series for my podcast that launches on Sept. 3, I thought about how the 9/11 terrorist attacks impacted the way we work in public relations.

The series is a nine-part remembrance of the 20th anniversary of those attacks and their lasting impact on the country. I had the opportunity to interview eight people about their personal stories of that day, from CNN’s lead news anchor Aaron Brown and Bloomberg News’ White House correspondent Dick Keil, to Bill Crowley, the FBI special agent in charge of crisis communications on scene in Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed.

The interviews and my own memories have taught me that some of the lessons of 9/11 have taken root so deeply that even if you don’t have a strong memory of that day, the aftereffects remain.

You may know someone who has served in the military in Afghanistan or Iraq. Or, you might wonder about all the hoops and hurdles you have to go through just to board a flight. Those are two direct vestiges of 9/11.

Bolstering crisis planning

Let’s go a little deeper to how we do our jobs in communications.

If your organization has a continuity plan for business disruption, then there’s a chance its current iteration is rooted in 9/11. Those attacks motivated many organizations to be prepared for any disruption and to bolster their crisis plans.

That’s process, but let’s go even deeper to the attitudinal level.

You may notice certain stakeholder groups that have a fierce affinity for American symbols and a strong sense of patriotism. Maybe you don’t fully understand where that comes from. Maybe you want to dismiss it as a generational thing.

Before you do, know that while the country’s sense of patriotism goes back to 1776 and has been reenergized through any number of crises and wars since, 9/11 was the last major flashpoint that had such an effect. If you communicate with stakeholders who remember 9/11, don’t be too quick to discount the influence of this.

Instilling a sense of patriotism

For a time after the terrorist attacks, the sense of patriotism throughout the country was palpable.

As one of my podcast guests Ed Root explained, “Those tragedies happened to us, because that’s what the emotional impact of it was, it happened to us, all of us.”

What he meant was that four hijacked aircraft on 9/11 didn’t just target buildings or people. They targeted symbols of America. Throughout the country, Americans saw the event as an attack on them. They found strength in each other, and in doing so, a common bond.

“In the two years after 9/11, we were the United States of America. I’m not saying there weren’t differences. I’m saying in ways that would make people in 2021 go, ‘No way!’” Aaron Brown said. “We loved each other. We stopped fighting for a while, and engaged with one another, not as political creatures but as fellow citizens. What stands out for me was how different the country felt in the days and weeks and months and for a couple years after 9/11, and how much I miss that, how glad I am that I had a chance to experience it, to some extent report on it.”

As horrendous as the events of 9/11 were, for so many who remember that time, one thing they may remember is the country’s unifying response. 

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