The successful military operation that eliminated Osama Bin Laden on May 2 serves as a natural coda for the saga that began ten years ago. While there are still many outstanding issues in international affairs such as the war in Afghanistan and relations with Pakistan, in the collective American psyche a chapter of history has ended. Indeed, the dramatic execution of Operation Neptune Spear caused some pundits and experts to declare the war on terror officially over.
And yet there is the popular mantra “we shall never forget.” This year marks the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, which will undoubtedly garner attention from the media and all levels of government. But in the business community, there is little clarity on how to appropriately observe this milestone, if at all. As both business historians and corporate communicators, we at The History Factory feel the anniversary is a significant moment that deserves an honorable commemoration, while admittedly awkward to discuss and execute.
On the heels of the Great Recession, as a sense of cautious optimism creeps into the marketplace—and especially now that Bin Laden’s elimination has created some sense of closure—many might prefer not to look back to the traumatic events of the last decade. For some companies, holding an obligatory moment of silence and flying the American flag at half-mast may be sufficient tributes. But there are many others for whom the significance of the event on their operations and culture—or perhaps, tragic loss—impels them to pursue a more substantive observation.
In a program we undertook last year, we showcased how some of the world’s most respected companies overcame challenges on the strength of their unique cultures. To produce the program we sought out and highlighted compelling stories that testified to the value of culture as a strategic resource and catalyst for strong employee performance. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been as surprised as we were that many of the stories we encountered were about the September 11 attacks and their aftermath.
During a moment of profound challenge, many companies rose to the occasion, taking action that had lasting positive impact. Some companies can boast of heroic responses to the attacks. Staples, the world’s largest office products company, mobilized its New York-area stores to provide low-tech supplies to law enforcement, intelligence, and other responders who were working in an environment where many telecommunications were down or compromised. That experience led directly to the creation of “Staples’ Soul,” the company’s corporate responsibility initiative. This is just one of scores of examples of how September 11 was a watershed moment for businesses that affected their cultures and the standards and procedures by which they operate to this day.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but many companies who were deeply impacted by the events from ten years ago will need to find their own ways to observe the September 11 anniversary in a program that is authentic to their culture and their experience of history. To that end, communicators developing their company’s approach to the 10th anniversary of September 11 should consider these ideas while planning their strategy:
Be Prepared With a Program.
Especially for companies based in New York City and Washington, D.C., and those who lost personnel or had other tragic experiences, there must be a program. Without an organized plan, employees will come up with their own ideas for what should be done. They will send the message, right or wrong, that the company isn’t giving this moment the attention it deserves.
Start with The Company’s Authentic September 11 Experience.
Every company’s experience was different and programming should tie directly back to it. Few will want to engage with a program that does not include a human element. It is crucial for any observation to be genuine and rooted in the lived experience of the recent past.
Create a Platform for Dialogue and Exchange.
Perhaps more than any other event in our lifetimes, everyone has a personal connection with the events of September 11, and they can identify with it in some way. Creating a mechanism where employees can share their personal experiences can strengthen a company’s culture.
Share the Company’s Experiences and Assets for the Public Good.
For many organizations, their September 11 experience is a part of the broader historical record and narrative at a local and/or national level. Donating materials to cultural institutions to bolster their September 11 collections will contribute to the documentation of one of the most significant events in our nation’s history.
Involve the Community.
September 11 brought together communities and inspired a renewed sense of patriotism. Remembering September 11 by bringing people together—and perhaps honoring those who have continued to give back—provides an appropriate positive outlook to the occasion.
Be Overly Sensitive to Commercialization.
September 11 is about September 11.