Today I opened a letter I have not read for nearly a decade. It was from Harold Decker, the president of the American Red Cross. It was a thank you note that accompanied a statue (called Motherland) he sent to me as a special gift. There is a story I have never told behind both the letter and the statue. The story began on 9/11. I decided it is finally time to write it down.
September 12, 2001
On Wednesday, September 12, 2001 I was at home. I got home about 1 AM in the morning following my 19 hours of adventure on 9/11 (which I have detailed in another post). I did not sleep well at all even though I was tired. There was just too much racing through my mind.
We were instructed to check our work voicemail for announcements and instructions from Viacom and MTV Networks (MTV Networks is a division of Viacom and VH1 where I worked was a division of MTV Networks). There was a message telling us the office would be closed Wednesday and to check back for updates. Fortunately, I had grabbed my laptop computer and tossed it into my brief case as we raced out of the building. (This was the famous brief case that created the bomb scare in Hoboken I have written about).
Being an executive with the company I had remote access to our systems so I could log in and check email and have access to files. This would be important.
I made some calls from my home office to check on my staff to be sure they all made it home OK. My boss, VH1 President John Sykes, was stuck in Denver following the Giants/Broncos game trying to get back to New York. I spoke with our head of communications John Kelley and others on our executive team to be sure everyone was OK.
As I sat at my desk I was feeling kind of helpless. Our nation had just suffered this huge tragedy. The many firefighters in the trucks we saw racing through Time Square on 9/11 never came back. The numbers of presumed dead where being reported in the 10,000 range. The images were horrible. So many people had suffered. So many people died trying to save others. So many people were trying to help. Everything was confusing.
Me? I felt like I could do nothing. How could I help? What could I do? I hated the feeling of helplessness. It ate at me.
As head of Public Affairs for the network I began to realize it would be up to me to recommend a strategy for how we, as a network, might respond. This helped me understand for the first time that maybe I wasn’t helpless. I started doing research on the organizations helping address the tragedy. We were getting reports about the urgent need for blood. So, I decided to call the American Red Cross (ARC) in Washington DC. They must have a message they want to get out. We have a television network and access to the airwaves to get their message out. Maybe this would be our way to help!
The American Red Cross disaster relief program focuses on meeting people's immediate emergency disaster-caused needs. When a disaster threatens or strikes, the Red Cross provides shelter, food, and health and mental health services to address basic human needs. In addition to these services, the core of Red Cross disaster relief is the assistance given to individuals and families affected by disaster to enable them to resume their normal daily activities independently. The Red Cross also feeds emergency workers, handles inquiries from concerned family members outside the disaster area, provides blood and blood products to disaster victims, and helps those affected by disaster to access other available resources. All of these services, and the financial support to provide them, were needed in response to the events of September 11th.
After speaking with someone at the Red Cross PR department I was transferred over to Julie Whitmer. Julie was in charge of coordinating with the entertainment industry for ARC.
I introduced my self. “My name is Bob Morrison and I head up public affairs for VH1, part of MTV Networks. I am calling to see what information you may have that we may share with our viewers on ways they may best help the Red Cross and deal with this tragedy. Do you have any messages or public service announcements (PSAs) we could run?”
Julie, who hailed from South Carolina and had a wonderful southern accent, went to great lengths to explain to me how, because of to the scale of the initial attacks, the American Red Cross was overwhelmed with their need to deliver services and relief in New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville Pennsylvania. The ARC lacked the man power, production resources and distribution network to get their message out to the American public. This was happening at the time when the public needed clear direction to channel their energy and emotions. She went on to tell me that even if they did have the capacity they were challenged by the inability to move crews and talent due to transportation restrictions across the country. This was a huge obstacle for them.
That gave me an idea. Being in the TV business I suggested she and her team come up with a few 30 second scripts for their key messages. While she worked on the scripts I told her I would check with our news department to see about getting the scripts read and produced into PSAs.
I spoke with Matt Hanna who coordinated our news teams to see what our plans were. He told me we had news crews that would be doing interviews with celebrities throughout that week. Through our discussions the process was transformed into an opportunity to record messages on how the public could help. Matt told me if we had the scripts we could just piggyback on the other news tapings. They planned on having crew in the field on September 13th.
After making some calls to other department heads and exchanging email messages with our Los Angeles office we came up with a game plan.
The strategy was very simple:
A) Create clear and direct scripts to provide the American public with information on what they can do and direct them to the appropriate resources. The issues addressed were: how to make donations that would directly benefit the victims and their families, encouraging people to give blood, how to handle the process of grieving and healing, and the need for tolerance.
B) Send out camera crews to locations where we would have access to tape the talent and feed the footage to a central location for editing.
C) Develop a distribution system to allow wide dissemination across the US.
D) Have participating media organizations run the PSAs as frequently as possible to generate financial contributions, blood donations, and to provide information about where to obtain mental health counseling.
We worked with the staff of the American Red Cross to develop scripts to be read by various talent and recorded by our crews in various locations. We agreed VH1 would produce non-branded spots for national distribution and branded spots for VH1’s own air. The topics were financial donations, blood donations, mental health and tolerance.
I then communicated our plan to our executive team at the network:
This is the email in the early afternoon of 9/12/01:
We have spent the majority of the day speaking with local and national organizations involved with coordinating relief efforts in response to yesterday’s tragic events to determine what possible role VH1 may play to help.
Here is what we recommend:
Current PSA- Continue to provide information about numbers to call. We should be sure we include:
To Give Blood Call 1-800-Give- Life
To Provide Financial Support Call 1-800- Help Now
To donate online go to www.redcross.org
New PSA's - We have received from the National Red Cross a series of PSA messages that support the three main issues where action is needed: giving blood, giving money, providing comfort and counseling. George has taken this information and crafted a version of the PSA's that will be VH1 specific. When we are taping the PSA's with talent we will tape the VH1 version and one of the Red Cross "generic" versions. We will then edit the PSA's and provide them to all of our Viacom brethren so they may run them on their networks while also having a VH1 specific version for our own air. The reason is two fold.... 1) The Red Cross needs the help right now and has no capacity to do this since they are dealing with the very real issues of the tragedy. 2) We are in a position to help them... making it the right thing to do.
Online - I have enclosed a banner add which can be used on our websites. Jason, maybe we can get others in MTVi to use it as well. I also have some additional information that I will send to Jason in a separate email to be incorporated into the site dealing with the three issues (Blood, Money, Counseling)
Press - John Kelley and Linda Alexander have been briefed about our plans since much of the filming will be done in LA. CBS Early Show is interested in making this part of a story they are doing on how Celebrities and the Entertainment industry is working to help.
Feeling as helpless as we all do, this approach will provide very real and meaningful assistance to the folks on the frontlines of this crisis and is a way we can make somewhat of a difference during this trying time.
Thanks for all your help and cooperation!
George in this case was George Moll. George was based in Los Angeles where he was the executive producer of our most popular show Behind the Music. Jason is Jason Hirschhorn who would go one to become head of all MTV Networks digital group, President of Sling Media and President of MySpace.
I spoke with Rick Krim (VH1 Executive Vice President of Music Talent) to have him help with the artists, Mimi James (our LA based VP in charge of Celebrity Talent) to help with celbs. I called Fred Graver (Senior Vice President of Programming for VH1, now head of programming for the Travel Channel) to be sure we would have the inventory to run the PSAs and Reggie Fils Amie, our Senior Vice President of Marketing) to help engage our affiliates and other Viacom divisions.
By sharing the PSAs with our “brethren” in Viacom meant we would get the messages out to CBS, Showtime, CBS Owned and Operated stations, UPN, All the MTV family of networks (MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, etc).
The first scripts were written and approved by the American Red Cross on the afternoon of September 12th.
September 13, 2001
Late on September 12th I received a voicemail announcement from MTV Networks letting the staff know that the building would be open on 9/13 but it would be up to inviduals if the would come in or not. I decided that I would go in so I could better coordinate our efforts from mid-town.
I took my usual 7 AM New Jersey Transit 114 express Bus into the Port Authority Terminal on 8th Avenue and 42nd street.
As we came to the New Jersey Turnpike I could see the plume of smoke and dust still emanating from the southern tip of the city. The bus was eerily quite. One of the great views of my commute was coming around the helix…. which is a large circular decent into the Lincoln Tunnel. My kids call it the “Big Cookie” because of the shape. As we make the first big turn to the right there was always a spectacular view of lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center. On this day the view was emotional and stunning. Smoke billowing from what was now known as Ground Zero. It was a jarring site… but not as jarring as what I was about to see.
As I came out of the bus in the Port Authority Terminal I saw home made pictures of people. Men and women… young and old and everything in between. They were the faces of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends. And they were all missing. If September 11th for me was the escape from New York… September 13th brought home the enormity of the events and the names and faces of those who were then missing but would never return. As I walked up 8th avenue toward 44th street, as I had done so many times before, people were pleading with anyone who would listen if they had seen their loved one. The pain and the sorrow was unimaginable.
Once in my office I checked with our news division too see what the plan was for the day. Matt and his team really came through! The news team sent several film crews out to locations in New York, Los Angeles and in Nashville TN to record high profile artists and celebrities. Melissa Etheridge, Johnny Rzeznick of the Goo Goo Dolls were shot in LA. Sheryl Crow taped in Nashville. Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora recorded in New Jersey.
The raw footage was sent via satellite to Los Angeles for editing and then sent again via satellite to the MTV Networks Network Operations Center for airing and centralized distribution.
At 11 PM on Thursday September 13, 2001 the first spots hit the airwaves on VH1, just 64 hours after the first airliner struck the World Trade Center. Tapes were then sent to the American Red Cross for additional editing and distribution.
The Push for National Distribution
Julie Whitmer was busy with her contacts as well. The American Red Cross reached out to the National Association of Broadcasters and to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) for assistance in distributing the PSAs.
In addition, VH1 had relationships with the National Association of Broadcasters, the NCTA (MTV Networks is an NCTA member company), cable system operators (Time Warner, Cablevision, Cox, Adelphia, Charter, Comcast) and the Cable Television Public Affairs Association (CTPAA) which is the group of my public affairs counterparts from the other cable networks and cable systems. CTPAA distributed announcements regarding the satellite feeds. Our head of Marketing, Reggie Fils Amie (now the President of Nintendo USA) coordinated with the marketing teams from all of the Viacom divisions to support the PSA effort through their businesses. A special satellite feed was set up through CBS News to service all of the local CBS and UPN affiliates. A radio version was fed to Infinity Broadcasting stations and the Westwood One/VH1 Radio Network. Master tapes were provided to MTV, MTV2, Nick at Nite, TV Land, TNN, Comedy Central, CMT and BET. Additional tapes were sent out to stations or cable operators that lacked the ability to take a satellite feed.
The generic spots were made available to all the MTV Networks and Viacom cable and broadcast outlets, as well as Red Cross constituents. Daily satellite feeds were coordinated with the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable Telecommunication Association during the weeks of September 17th and 24th.
By September 18th the first round of the public service announcements were running on national cable networks, national broadcast networks, local broadcast stations, local cable systems, and local radio stations NATIONWIDE. This mass appeal for support provided the American public with clear directions on how they could help in this time of our nation’s greatest need.
Crews were scrambled for special opportunities. Julie Whitmer had arranged for Julia Roberts to tape a PSA. We had a tight window and had to scramble one of our LA crews to tape the message. This would be critical since the Julia Roberts PSA would go on to be the most played PSA during the crisis.
At the same time plans were now developing for the creation of the VH1/Cablevision/Miramax/AOL produced Concert for New York City (stories from this event will be saved for another time). The concert would take place in Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2001. This would be a perfect place to get more artists, celebrities and dignitaries to tape messages for Red Cross.
We set-up a PSA taping studio backstage during the Concert for New York City to support a new series of public service announcement for the American Red Cross. Celebrities that participated include: Senator Daschle, Harrison Ford, Backstreet Boys, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Melissa Etheridge, Jon Bon Jovi, Kid Rock, Richie Sambora, Five For Fighting among others. The PSA’s were once again distributed nationwide by the American Red Cross and NCTA as well as across all MTVN/Viacom properties. TNN, BET, CBS and UPN local affiliates. Tapes were made available to individual MTVN business units as well as our cable affiliates across the country.
When all was said and done the roster of participating artists included: Melissa Etheridge, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Johnny Rzeznick, Grahm Nash, Sheryl Crow, Julia Roberts, Backstreet Boys, Will Ferrell, Amy Grant, Travis Tritt, Camryn Manheim, Chi Chi McBride, Calista Flockhart and Rob Lowe and the group from the Concert for New York City.
The tremendous outpouring of support for the Red Cross led to the establishment of the Liberty Fund, a separate, segregated account that was created solely to hold and disburse funds related to the September 11 attacks and its aftermath. As a result, in part, of this nationwide television and radio industry coordinated appeal, over $564 million dollars were donated to the American Red Cross. This contributed to:
Disaster Relief: More than 10 million meals and snacks (more than 100,000 per day) were provided to families, police officers, fire fighters, recovery personnel, rescue workers and investigators. Food, shelter and health services were provided to support the rescue and recovery operations at the three disaster sites.
Blood Supply: The Nation’s blood supply is at the highest level in history. A ten day supply is being maintained (up from a 1 day supply prior to September 11th) and the stock of red blood cells is also at record levels enabling the Red Cross to address current needs and support any future needs.
Mental Health Support: Red Cross mental health workers also have provided emotional support for more than 144,000 people affected by these horrific events at the disaster sites and across the country.
Caught up in all of the efforts, The Concert for New York City, our Vh1 Save The Music events and my other responsibilities… the impact of all of these efforts completely escaped me… until I received this letter and actually... until I read it again yesterday:
November 27, 2001
Mr. Robert B. Morrison
Vice President – Public Affairs
1515 Broadway, 20th Floor
New York, NY 10036
Dear Mr. Morrison:
The American Red Cross is profoundly grateful for your proactive and immediate response following the September 11th tragedies on behalf of VH1. Your donation of time, talent and energy dedicated to creating and generously disseminating public service announcements (PSAs) featuring celebrities on VH1, across all of the Viacom companies, and to national and local media outlets nationwide had a direct impact on our ability to serve those in need.
Your compassionate efforts and those of your committed staff to assist the American Red Cross in the wake of the tragedies played a vital role ensuring that our organization could respond in extraordinary, lifesaving ways. Thanks to your support, millions of meals have been served, tens of thousands of people have received mental health and grief counseling, and millions of dollars have been dispensed to families in dire need to cover costs of transportation, childcare, mortgage or rent payments, funerals and related expenses. While extraordinary progress has been made since the September 11 disasters, we realize there is much more to be done.
September 11, 2001 forever changed the landscape of our country and the life of every American. We have never faced a disaster of this size, scope or intensity but we’re meeting the challenge – because of your help. Thank you for reaching out in this time of need, and thank you for continuing to trust the American Red Cross as we bring comfort and care to our nation during these troubled times. Your trust is precious to us, and we will do our very best to uphold it.
Through it all, the American Red Cross mission has not changed. Led by millions of volunteers across the nation, we help people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. We thank you and VH1 for the heartfelt assistance and assure you that your contributions have made a difference. Together, we can save a life.
With my warmest personal regards,
Chief Executive Officer
With this letter was a small statue. The statue is a miniature of the statue that stands outide of the American Red Cross Headquarters in Washington, DC. It is called “Motherland.” Frid Sogoyan was the sculpter
Born in 1937 in the Armenian city of Gyumri, Frid Sogoyan became interested in the intricate designs and ornaments being carved into stone on new construction in the city. Eventually moving to Moscow in 1970, he was hired by the Soviet department in charge of constructing national monuments. Famous for its heroic scale, Sogoyan’s works are often massive and took years to finish. Seven of his sculptures are on view in Moscow and more than 50 other works are displayed in major cities of the former Soviet Union. In 1988, a massive earthquake hit Armenia and killed 32 close friends of Sogoyan from his hometown. During a visit to Washington, D.C., he realized how important the U.S. aid was to the earthquake victims, and in gratitude he created a bronze statue of a mother and child entitled Motherland that has been on display on the grounds of the American Red Cross national headquarters since 1991.
The plaque on the statue the Red Cross had sent reads:
With Deepest Thanks and Appreciation To:
Bob Morrison and VH1
For Outstanding Dedication to and Support of
The American Red Cross Following the September 11th Tragedies.
I have kept that letter safe in my armoire in our bedroom. I took it out yesterday (September 10, 2011). It motivated me to write this post for the 10th Anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I did so to pay tribute to those who lost their lives. I did so to pay tribute to those who in ways both large and small volunteered their time and efforts to help, I did so to pay tribute to my friends and coleagues across the cable and television industry for their incredible role in making a difference for the people of this country in a time of need… and I did so to teach my children a lesson: that no matter how hopeless or useless you may feel, you can ALWAYS make a difference…
If you choose to.
Robert B. Morrison
September 11, 2011