An Important Basic for the PR Professional—Remembering National Tragedies in Public Relations

In the coming and recently passed days we’ve seen a lot of different PR firms sending out stories and reports about remembering 9/11. While this type of report is fortunately a rarity, there will always be those few days where everyone stops to think about a devastation that happened to our nation. Along with 9/11 we remember Hurricane Katrina, Columbine, and the shootings at Virginia Tech among others. It is the job of the press to be sure that not only are these historic days not forgotten, but that they are remembered with the right amount of respect and nationalism. With that said, this is virtually the only thing the press needs to be doing during these tough times.

Although it may seem obvious, PR agencies still continue to make rookie mistakes when it comes to expressing their sorrow for the lives lost because of these tragedies. Whether you need a refresher on the basics or you are, in fact, a PR rookie, consider some of these necessities.

Do not publicize free items as a remembrance

It is never a good idea to offer discounts or free gifts on the anniversary of a National disaster. Some may see this as a way to both remember and entice clients and customers to get involved in their business – a kill two birds with one stone type mentality, but quite frankly this is the problem. No free gift or discount is going to make someone feel better about the day’s events, and even if it does, then you are using a national tragedy for your own personal gain.

No need to create any special tokens of remembrance

We unfortunately all remember the pop-up 9/11 coin. For those of you who were lucky enough to miss this fifth year anniversary remembrance, I think the name says it all. This coin not only seemed to mock the day’s events, but it was actually created out of material from the World Trade Centers. While a pop-up coin may be extreme, there is no reason to create any special items of clothing, pins, or even office pens to commemorate the event. This can be seen as disrespectful and not supportive because the event cannot be embodied into something so small.

Do not forget/ignore the issue

On the other end of the spectrum, ignoring the fact that it is the anniversary of 9/11 or another national tragedy is not the answer. While it may seem easier to be on the safe side and not say anything, this will also portray your company negatively. People need to know that you care; it is expected that each company will send out some sort of statement, no matter how large or small, about the anniversary as needed. Paying tribute to 9/11 does not have to be difficult or stressful for a PR department—think about this when you are not ignoring the issue on the country’s mind.

 Never use a tragedy as any sort of comparison with your company. This is not an opportunity to create a metaphor or a witty attention grabber.

This is probably the most common mistake by PR professionals. With something that causes a lot of discussion, it is natural for a PR department to want to capitalize on that to get people interested. This is never a good idea because it makes it seem like the company does not take the tragedy seriously, but rather uses it for their own gain.

Letting the public know that you haven’t forgotten is important, but the public does not need a big production to understand the point. Leave it to the White House to deliver a lasting message to the country, as a PR agency, all you have to do is say, “we remember the day’s events with great sadness.” There can be plenty of implications with a message so simple—let’s just hope that in these days PR firms leave a little room to reflect on our own.

Amanda DiSilvestro is a writer on topics ranging from social media to time and attendance systems. She writes for an online resource that gives advice on topics including time card software to small businesses and entrepreneurs at

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  • Jordan728

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    Your post is a
    good reminder for upcoming PR professionals Amanda. I like it because it
    suggests a balance of addressing a national tragedy respectfully, rather than
    ignoring it or using it as a means of promoting the organization. A simple
    statement shows respect towards the tragedy, while making a lengthy statement of
    how your company feels could be interpreted as drawing attention away from the

    • Amanda DiSilvestro

      I’m glad you liked my ideas. I wrote this article before the 9/11 this anniversary this past Sunday, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Everywhere I went the day was remembered, but no one was exploiting it for their own benefit (if that is even possible!). Hopefully you found the same!

  • Jamie Johansen

    I had the unfortunate opportunity to live just a few miles
    south of the devastating tornado that plowed through Joplin, Mo in May.  Many businesses were destroyed or at least
    suffered some sort of damage or employees were affected.  I honestly hadn’t put too much thought into
    how businesses would remember the one-year anniversary coming up this spring. But
    this post really got me thinking about how personal the natural disaster is too
    me and others in Southwest Missouri and how residents and businesses need to
    keep it personal and not corporate.

  • Twin 1 08 Msu

    Though I completely agree with what the author is saying here, I feel some of the points may be taking it too far.  In the first paragraph the point is made that during times of remembrance we shouldn’t be doing anything but showing our respect.  I do believe that it is important to make sure that the bulk of what PR professionals are doing is in tribute, but you cannot just stop all other items everytime.  I understand that you don’t want to do anything to celebrate the event by giving away free stuff, but im just wondering if this would include a dinner, or public event, to create a public forum for people to display their memories.

    I am a college student in southeastern Missouri and I will be sure to use the tips provided by the article once I graduate.  They are, in fact, very useful!

  • WhitneyW

    While I find myself nodding my head and thinking about how realistic these tips really are, I am wondering things that go in a little different direction. How does one decide which national tragedies they should remember? Or who defines a national tragedy? I believe 9/11 is the most obvious national tragedy in our society that needs to be publicly remembered. As a student in high school six years ago, I remember collecting money in buckets to donate to the relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans many PR firms will remember and recognize the anniversary for Katrina, but should PR firms across the country do the same? The Joplin tornado that has caused so much grief in Missouri received national attention while the tornadoes that killed over 300 people in Alabama and surrounding states last spring received significantly less. Will PR firms in New York or California remember the anniversaries in Missouri and the South? Or are those not considered national tragedies, while Katrina is? I guess I wonder if it is really PR firm’s intent on ignoring remembering, but rather not knowing which events are appropriate to remember or not. I am also a student at Missouri State University and I do find these tips helpful, but I wonder how anyone is suppose to completely know which to recognize and which not to recognize. 

  • Amanda DiSilvestro

    Great insights into the subject. I am actually from Normal, Illinois, and while I know that is not Missouri, I did have friends who found themselves very close to that devastation. I hope that everyone close to you is doing well as the one-year anniversary approaches, and as Jamie said, I hope it is kept personal and not corporate.

    With that said, Twin 1 08 Msu, you make a great point. I think that a dinner or some sort of public event would be a great PR move. As long as the event is not a “party,” I think it could really work. If there was a formal presentation where people spoke about how the tragedy affected their lives, I think it could be a great way to show respect. I see this happening more in the town where the tragedy happened as opposed to somewhere else in the country, but nonetheless I agree with your idea!

    WhitneyW, I think your comment is great. I thought long and hard about what you said–of course there are tragedies that happen everyday; it is a bit unrealistic to commemorate the anniversaries of each one. In my professional opinion, PR firms need to be remembering the largest national tragedies such as 9/11, Katrina, and what happened in Joplin. The reason these have become something to be remembered is because of their size. Now, I am in no way saying that other national tragedies did not matter just because they were smaller. However, the truth of the matter is a PR firm cannot remember the anniversary of every event. You are right! It is such a fine line. I think it is the smaller tragedies that need to be remembered from only specific states that were affected.

    However, it would be wonderful if a PR firm could try and at least be aware of most national tragedies. This way, if the occasion should arise where they need to be aware, they are prepared. These are just my opinions, and I thought long and hard about them! Whitney, you are completely right–it is difficult to decide what should be remembered and what should not.

    Does anyone else have any thoughts?

  • Sara Ryan

    I really agree with the second thing you posted about not creating tokens in honor to remember an event. Events such as 9/11 are supposed to be honored and remembered respectively. That is a great lesson for anyone, even outside the public relations field, to remember and to not do.

    • Amanda DiSilvestro

      Absolutely. In fact, it was those tokens that spurred me to write this article.