Did the Red Cross Let PR Trump Shelter and Food, or is Critical Story Very Thin?

When Americans throw around adjectives like “venerable,” “respected,” and “committed,” those words most often refer to organizations like the United Way, branches of the military, the service academies and the Red Cross.

Yet all of these suffered various scandals over the last 15 years, and now it’s the Red Cross’s turn. As Pro Publica and NPR reported on the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the Red Cross apparently worked at least as hard burnishing its own reputation as it did helping storm victims find shelter, food and hope.

These findings come from the very Red Cross employees most involved with trying to get aid where it needed to go.

“It was just clear to me that they weren’t interested in doing mass care; they were interested in the illusion of mass care,” says Richard Rieckenberg, who helped lead the Red Cross’ response to Sandy and Hurricane Isaac.


Hits like this go right to mission and reputation. Americans are endlessly generous, especially in times of great national catastrophe. But they are equally furious if they feel scammed or lied to.

So how did the Red Cross respond to this attack on its credibility and reputation? Pretty darned well.

Yesterday it issued a Myth/Fact news release that went into extensive detail on each charge in the story. The release even takes on the main “whistleblower” in the Pro Publica report and fights back with the best weapons anyone can use in such a situation: Facts.

Myth: The American Red Cross cares more about its image and reputation than providing service to those in need.

Fact: Our mission is to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies, and that alone is what guided our service delivery decisions during Sandy and during every emergency. With the help of our donors and 17,000 workers – 90% of whom are volunteers – we delivered 17 million meals and snacks, 7 million relief items, and hosted 74,000 overnight stays in shelters to people who urgently needed our services.

Every year, the Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters, most of which are home fires that never make headlines. If the Red Cross cared more about image and PR than providing services, we wouldn’t spend time responding to these silent disasters.

And, here’s an especially effective rebuttal:

Myth: The Red Cross allowed sex offenders in shelters.

Fact: The Red Cross has policies and procedures in place to handle the presence of sex offenders in shelters and works closely with law enforcement in the shelter management process.

Shelter registration forms ask if people are required to register with the state for any reason. If the answer is “yes” the shelter manager must speak with the individual immediately. If a shelter resident is identified as a registered sex offender, the Red Cross will work with local law enforcement to determine what’s best for the safety of those in the shelter.

There was at least one situation during Sandy where a shelter resident identified someone who he/she thought was a sex offender. When this was brought to our attention, we brought in additional resources and handled the matter.

We provided this information to NPR and Pro Publica, and they chose not to include it.

It’s not clear what effect this story will have on Red Cross fundraising or effectiveness, but if the story accuses the organization of using PR the wrong way, it should give the Red Cross credit for employing PR and crisis management the proper way by using facts to rebut its critics.

By Steve Bell, Partner, Director of Public Affairs