Red Cross creates its own self-inflicted disaster

by Mark Firmani

June 4, 2015

For an organization that responds to disasters, the American Red Cross has created their own communication crisis in how they responded to yesterday’s story on National Public Radio: In Search Of The Red Cross’ $500 Million In Haiti Relief.

The 20-minute piece dives into the re-building results claimed by the Red Cross, who raised record-breaking relief dollars in 2010. NPR says, “The American Red Cross vowed to help Haitians rebuild. Yet, after five years, the Red Cross’ legacy in Haiti isn’t new roads, schools and hundreds of new homes. And it’s difficult to know where all the money went.”

The story gets worse – according to the NPR piece, done in association with ProPublica, the only tangible output by the Red Cross and the half-billion dollars in donations was the construction of six homes.

The Red Cross couldn’t have responded in a more damaging way. In fact, it would be hard to engineer a response that was more destructive to the venerated organization than what they did.

First, instead of making a reasoned response to NPR’s claims, giving them examples of good works within the country – and maybe even offering up Haitians helped by the efforts, the organization instead refused to talk specifics. They talked about five-year plans and their Herculean efforts to help ease incredible human suffering caused by the earthquake with grand generalities, yet they steadfastly refused to offer up even a whit of evidence.

tri_04b_custom-de389be61687ac5b88e97740cf72285aac1d6ce9-s1300-c85They said, more or less “We won’t tell you where or how we helped with the $500 million, but just trust us.”

Perhaps the most ham-handed decision by the organization was to have the organization’s attorney act as their spokesperson. Nothing says compassion and transparency like an attorney.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, after NPR went to Haiti to talk with those the Red Cross promised to help, the Red Cross chastised NPR in an email saying they were “creating ill will in the community which may give rise to a security incident. We will hold you and your news organizations fully responsible.”

Whoever is giving this exposed organization their communication counsel should be shown the door. No one trusts those who are unwilling to accept blame for well-intentioned errors, especially when it involves money and a real crisis like what happened to the people of Haiti.

The lack of a thoughtful, transparent communication plan will certainly cost the Red Cross in terms of its brand credibility. That, in turn, will cost millions in lost donations which should go to saving lives. That’s the tragedy.

Mark Firmani
About Mark Firmani
Mark Firmani leads Firmani + Associates as its founder and president, setting the tone for the firm and its team of skilled practitioners and marketing specialists. He brings more than 25 years of PR expertise, business communication strategy, marketing savvy and political experience to every aspect of the firm’s operations. Mark defines the strategic vision of Firmani + Associates within each of its practice areas and provides senior-level counsel to client partners representing a diverse range of industries.
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Red Cross creates its own self-inflicted disaster