Icons of American life. Except the Red Cross seems to fall off its pedestal on a pretty regular basis in recent years. The current CEO Gail McGovern was brought on board in 2008 to help clean up the organization’s post-Katrina public image and public trust problems that surfaced during that disaster. She may have taken the image buffing charge a bit too much to heart, or too literally. In research and a story released on the occasion of the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, some disturbing priorities funded by the Red Cross under McGovern’s leadership:
Red Cross officials at national headquarters in Washington, D.C. compounded the charity’s inability to provide relief by “diverting assets for public relations purposes,” as one internal report puts it. Distribution of relief supplies, the report said, was “politically driven.”
During Isaac, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty instead, “just to be seen,” one of the drivers, Jim Dunham, recalls.
During Sandy, emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, angering disaster responders on the ground.
This story has received a lot of attention following the coverage on NPR and via ProPublica. You may have heard the NPR coverage on the news programs this week. I urge you to check the extensive article at ProPublica if you’re interested in this story.
Certainly the Red Cross has done important, life-saving work over the years. But Ms. McGovern’s attention to branding and heavy investment in PR to elevate the organization’s image has been counter-productive. Everyone knows the Red Cross does good stuff. The best way to advance its image is to continue to do that work, and more of it–by spending far less on PR and at least 80% on the job of helping people.
I have a couple of dogs in this race. Back in ’98, during the ice storm that left huge swaths of the north country and eastern Ontario and western Quebec without power for as much as three weeks, the compelling takeaway was how quickly local volunteer fire departments and churches organized to provide relief to their communities. What they needed more than anything else was rapid response from the Red Cross to bring needed supplies into the region. That isn’t quite what happened. The Red Cross was relatively slow to respond and then the supplies had to be distributed on Red Cross terms, rather than allowing already effective and locally knowledgeable volunteers to proceed with their own methods. The Red Cross left a lot of ill-will in the wake of their presence in the north country.
More recently, both FEMA and the Red Cross failed to deliver critical relief to the poor coastal neighborhoods outside of NYC. My son, who lives in Manhattan, has traveled to Far Rockaway every Sunday for the past year to help rehab housing, build pocket parks, playgrounds and gardens for the families who received no help in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Elsewhere in the state, politicians showed up to hand out money and promises to rebuild, while middle class or wealthier residents figured out how to access assistance from FEMA, and the Red Cross was visibly present. In Far Rockaway, it’s been crumbs–and the most help has once again come from local churches and community groups that just rolled up their sleeves and pitched in. No politically influential photo ops in Far Rockaway.
Mom and apple pie continue to hang in there without needing brand repair because they make their branding point by being what they are–Mom loves you regardless of your flaws and apple pie is just darn good to eat. Instead of spending time and money telling you what the brand is, maybe the Red Cross could learn something from mom and apple pie by simply doing what we all think the Red Cross does with its money.