Public Relations Tactics

10 years later: Reflecting on the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001

September 1, 2011

John Milton Wesley sits on a bench dedicated to Sarah Miller Clarke at the Pentagon. [AP/Wide World Photos]
John Milton Wesley sits on a bench dedicated to Sarah Miller Clarke at the Pentagon. [AP/Wide World Photos]

All of us remember where we were on Sept. 11, 2001 and have vivid memories of  how we heard the news that America was under attack.

If you lost a friend or loved one on that day 10 years ago, then the frame-by-frame loop of that life-changing day never stops replaying.

First, we saw a massive hole in the side of  Tower 1 of the World  Trade Center in New  York.  At worst, we hoped that it was due to the misfortunes of a wayward pilot or a plane in trouble.  We stared in awe.  We turned to do something — perhaps even to look away — but suddenly a second plane crashed into World Trade Center Tower 2, and we knew that this would not be an ordinary day.

For public information officers at all levels of government — local, state and federal — it was a day that none of us had prepared for because it was never suppose to happen.  The disaster did not come with a manual, script or outline. It came in a series of events, not just one.

However, as a public information officer (PIO), it was my job to swing into action, evaluate the situation, call the right people, prepare the press statement, vet it, stay calm and try and make some sense out of the events.

Normally, there is a defined audience for each message.  But Sept. 11 was not normal — and for this PIO, the truth hit close to home.

Processing the tragedy

At the time, 10 years ago this Sept. 11, 2001, I was serving as deputy director of communications for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) and as deputy director for the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Baltimore’s agency — the fifth largest in the nation — was in the midst of its public housing renaissance, tearing down the city’s old high-rise public housing slums and replacing them with mixed-use, garden-style communities.

I was engaged and planned to marry Sarah Miller Clark, a middle-school math and geography teacher in the Washington, D.C. public school system, on Dec. 22, 2001.  We shared a home in Columbia, Md.,  just southwest of  Baltimore.

Sarah was involved in a science and geography project and was selected to attend an oceanographic expedition in Santa Barbara, Calif., accompanied by one of her students, 11-year-old Asia Cottom, as well as two other teachers and students. She left at 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 to meet Asia’s father at their home and drive to Dulles International Airport in Arlington,  Va.

After waking up and seeing Sarah off, I went to work early in preparation for a meeting with the producers of the HBO TV series ‘‘The Wire.” Sarah had insisted that I remain behind and keep the appointment.  The director of communications was on vacation that week, so I was in charge.

It was our first day of scouting locations to film the series, which was originally set in a high-rise public housing community in Baltimore.

When I returned to the office after scouting with the HBO crew, all employees were dismissed due to the number of bomb threats to buildings — including our headquarters — that the city had received that day.

It was the only statement that I made that day for my employer. I had no idea that I would soon be looking for my own words.

I arrived home from the office at about 12:30 p.m. and soon received a phone call from a National Geographic Society staff member who had accompanied Sarah and her group to Dulles.

She told me that Sarah was on Flight No. 77 — the plane that crashed into the Pentagon killing all on board — and that I should call American Airlines. I did, and when I told the person on the other end of the line my name, she verified my address. She then asked me to hold to speak with a “special representative.”

Preparing for the unimaginable

There was so much to process.

Which of Sarah’s two children should I call first to break the news: her son or her daughter? How do I watch the live footage of the smoldering Pentagon that I was watching, while knowing that the woman I loved, who I had held in my arms just hours earlier, was inside?  What would I do to hold myself together? Could I?  What would I say to the world? How soon should I begin planning a memorial service?  Should I have one service or two — one in the town where we lived, and another in Washington, D.C. where Sarah taught school?

What was even more surreal is that my professional instincts — or perhaps my years of training as a radio and television reporter — reminded me that despite how I felt at the moment or the responsibilities that I now had, the real story was not about me and would never be about me.

Learning to cope

I continued to work in public information. After taking some time off from 2003 to 2005, I returned to work as a corporate communications officer in the private sector, and then I became a PIO again — this time in public transportation. I currently serve as PIO for the Department of  Transportation in Maryland, and held this position when U.S. Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this summer.

Again, the chief of media relations was on vacation. My supervisor left me in charge — responsible to my client and for my client’s message.  And, again, I was bound to concentrate on my client’s story and to keep my personal reaction confined to my own time.

For me, the key turned out to be creating rituals.  These did not grow out of discipline or religious beliefs, but emerged instinctually from a drive to survive. Some were as simple as lighting candles every day for five years.

Others were as complicated as replanting the flower boxes the same way that they were the last time Sarah and I planted them together.

There were rituals born out of compassion, like returning to visit her school and the students who she taught at the start of the academic year.

I also knew that the sooner that I returned to work, the better I would feel. Work allowed me to be of service to people — and one of the best ways to jump-start your own healing process after great personal loss and sadness is to “help someone else,” according to Dr.  J. Shep Jeffreys, a grief care provider and longtime friend of mine.

Managing the grief

On Sept. 12, 2001 at about 3 a.m. — after hearing confirmation from American Airlines that Sarah was indeed on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon — first, I cried; and then, I went to work approximately two hours later than usual and stayed for four hours.

After all, in those next 19 days through the end of the month, I had 33 events on the calendar, including a planned convention in Baltimore hosted by HABC of the National Mortgage Bankers Association (NMBA).

Some people asked me why I attended the conference.  To me, the answer was simple.

Being there is what public information officers do — not because we don’t feel pain, but because in times of crisis, an organization’s PIO is essential personnel. Our constituencies needed our collective intelligence to help them get on with life and come to terms with “the new normal.”

A writer once said that “tears are the words we cannot speak.”

 For the horror before my eyes at that time, and the pain in my heart, I did not have any words — only tears for Sarah, her family,  Asia Cottom’s family, the families of the other teachers and children with them and for the loved ones of all the people who were injured or died that day.

Afterward, I had to find a way to pick up the pieces of my life and broken dreams and start anew.

In the 10 years since Sept. 11, 2001, technology, war, politics, natural disasters, violence, a worldwide economic paradigm shift, a quantum leap in the value of intelligence and a heightened interest in homeland security have changed the role of the public information officer forever.

It all still seems surreal. However, the experience has left me with five rules for a PIO to live by when the story hits close to home:

  1. Focus on the story and not how you feel about it.
  2. Get the facts straight, and remember: Feelings are not facts.
  3. Reject the temptation to play the victim.
  4. Limit your public comments to the time available.
  5. Always remember that the story — despite its impact on your life — is not about you.
John Milton Wesley
John Milton Wesley is public information officer for the Maryland Transit Administration and formerly worked for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. He lost his fiancée on flight No. 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.


John Milton Wesley says:

Thanks to the folks at PRSA for sharing this story with their readers. There is no question that in this "new normal" some other PIO will face a similar situation sometime in the future. John Milton Wesley

Sept. 1, 2011

Leslie A. Barrow says:

Reading this story today brought back that day as if it had just happened. I worked with John and I remember how awful I felt for all the persons whom lost their lives or were injured, but my heart was especially heavy when John's secretary announced to the staff that Sarah was on board flight No. 77 that crashed into the Pentagon. I felt as if my heart stopped. Upon John's returned to the building there were no words to convey what my heart felt. I remember looking for him before we were dismissed from the building. A hug seemed like such a small gesture but, I truly it conveyed my sorrow for John. I will never forget the events of that day or I sorrow I saw in John's eyes each day after that.

July 27, 2012

Roopa W. Goswami says:

I have faced many tragedies in my life, from my childhood. But the world trade center bombing was worst than ones I had.I was teaching in the classroom at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Ct.While lecturing, my class, T.V. turned on.I, along with my students, watched the plane crushing through the building, and then the second one. I remember people waiving their hands for help, and their desperation, the smoke rising up the the sky.All classes were cancelled, instantly.even though so many years have passed since the tragedy occurred. I haven't slept a peaceful night all these years.This tragedy will remain alive in my heart rest of my life.My god bless their soul, who lost their lives.

Aug. 21, 2013

John Milton Wesley says:

Still very relevant, if you ask me.

July 27, 2014

Sarah Maurizi says:

Hello, I came across this article after doing a google search of Sarah M. Clark. I am a school psychologist working in Ohio and one of our high school history teachers put together a list 3,000 of victims from 9/11. He encouraged staff and students to choose a name at random and write down that name and keep it for the next year in remembrance of the lives that were lost. I was drawn to Sarah's name since my name is also Sarah. I decided to take it a step further and look for more information regarding her life. I was excited to find out that she was a teacher, since I also work in the world of education. It was so beautiful to hear John speak about his fiance. I don't know if anyone is still checking these messages, however I just wanted John to know I will be keeping Sarah's name near my desk and everytime I look at it I will be reminded of the beautiful person she was. Sincerely, Sarah Maurizi

Sept. 14, 2016

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