Imagine Alaska – a vast land of many mountain ranges, rivers, and a rugged coastline, dotted by small villages and towns and a handful of larger cities. A 15,000-mile highway system serves a portion of the 660,000 Alaska residents, but much of the state—which is the size of Texas, California, and Montana combined—is only accessible by boat, plane, snow machine, and even occasionally by dog sled. Roads are so few that the state capitol, Juneau, cannot be reached by car.
Alaskan children enjoy Red Cross hospitality at the start of the famous Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race in Willow, Alaska
Photo Compliments of the American Red Cross of Alaska
Now imagine your job is to oversee statewide communications for the American Red Cross Alaska Chapter, headquartered in the state's largest city, Anchorage. This is the challenge faced by Kelly Hurd, community relations manager for the American Red Cross Alaska chapter. With seven additional small offices around the state forming the nucleus of disaster response outside Anchorage, working with the media and training others to do so is a growing part of Kelly's job.
The Power of Two
To bolster this work, Kelly is implementing the American Red Cross' Power of Two program, partnering with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) of Alaska in the state's major population areas (Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau). The Alaska PRSA Chapter consists of 137 members living and working not only in Anchorage and Fairbanks but in small towns across Interior Alaska. So far, Kelly's been met with genuine enthusiasm.
The program's moniker, "Power of Two," refers to the time someone might dedicate to volunteering to the American Red Cross -- two hours (writing news releases, for example); two days (handling media at a local disaster); two weeks (providing media relations for a large disaster anywhere in the United States) or twice a year. The Power of Two offers volunteers flexibility in determining how and for how long they will volunteer. Under the program, volunteers also receive training on fulfilling their roles as Red Cross media representatives.
The effort kicked off late last year when Peter Macias, who works in communications, marketing and government relations for the American Red Cross west service area out of Las Vegas, Nevada, conducted an introductory seminar in Anchorage on the Power of Two for PRSA members. The effort recruited several local PR people, and the project to build more volunteers in public affairs was underway.
Creating a Plan
Since then, Kelly's formed a team to focus primarily on completing a working crisis communications plan. Jennifer Keese, a Red Cross volunteer, intern and a journalism and public communication major at the University of Alaska Anchorage, developed a project to manage the creation of the plan as part of her work in her final semester prior to graduation. With the help of PRSA member volunteer Julie Grey Pollock, APR, the group finished the plan in late April.
"PRSA members and other public relations professionals we have met with have been impressive," Kelly reflects. "At a recent introductory talk I gave in late May in Fairbanks (more than 300 miles from Anchorage), we had six PRSA members and eight other PR folks attend, and many are interested in the next training session to learn the nuts and bolts of providing good public information. People are genuinely interested in volunteering for this organization," she said.
Starting Young Brenda Hewitt, a PRSA member based in Fairbanks, is one of the public relations professionals Kelly has recruited. The owner of her own PR firm, Positive Impressions, she actually began her career with a stint on the staff of her high school newspaper. That led to a volunteer role helping with publicity for the Fairbanks office of the American Red Cross as a teenager. Today, she's helping lifelong friend John Binkley in his campaign for governor of Alaska.
"When you help the American Red Cross, you are helping your neighbors and your friends," Brenda said. "In Alaska, we're all closely connected. Instead of seven degrees of separation, it's only one or two degrees."
Drawing on volunteers' skills is a special talent of the organization, Brenda added. "The good thing about the Red Cross is, no matter what your talents are, the organization can use them. It's a great way to put your time into work where you can do the most good."
Volunteers Are the Key
Volunteers fill many of the roles in disaster relief at any American Red Cross office. Some 90 percent of all roles are held by dedicated volunteers in the Alaska's disaster operations, and having trained volunteers to assist with public affairs is integral to a successful relief operation.
A quick response to the media is a sure-fire way to share vital information with the public. It's also a valuable opportunity to tell the Red Cross story, building much-needed support as well as soliciting contributions for the organization. Because the American Red Cross relies solely on donations and receives no government assistance, employees and volunteers work to raise funds in response to every disaster.
The Lessons of Hurricane Katrina
Through the Power of Two, Kelly also hopes to fortify her resources during large national disasters. Last year's Hurricane Katrina saw 200 Alaskan American Red Cross volunteers travel to the disaster area immediately following the storm. The disaster forced 100 families to relocate from hurricane damaged areas to Alaska.
Because the organization's work offered a strong local angle on the larger national story, Kelly spent several months working with the Alaska media. She was able to tell in detail of the Red Cross of Alaska's contributions to relief work in the Gulf regions, and the need for the community's ongoing support. Alaskans responded generously to the call for help, and over $1 million poured in to assist with the historic relief operation.
Preparing for the Next Disaster
Hurricane Katrina underscored the need for more PR support in the Alaska chapter office. In Alaska, where small earthquakes are common events and a volcano is currently erupting, disaster can strike at any time. Most Alaskans are haunted by an earlier event: the devastating 1964 earthquake, the largest ever to hit Alaska with its mammoth magnitude of 9.2.
Emergency preparedness lingers in the back of Alaskan minds; it's easy to envision a life-threatening disaster that could destroy lives and make communications across the state difficult. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, such disasters also provide sink-or-swim training for public relations volunteers.
"Working to inform the public during a disaster is a tremendous opportunity for volunteers who are public relations professionals," Kelly said. "There's no better proving ground than a crisis. You draw on all your skills. You learn so much.
"And the results are gratifying," Kelly added. "Easing suffering, asking for support of our organization that relies solely on donations, and functioning as a team -- that's good, satisfying and valuable work."
The American Red Cross has helped people mobilize to help their neighbors for 125 years. Last year, victims of a record 72,883 disasters, most of them fires, turned to the nearly 1 million volunteers and 35,000 employees of the Red Cross for help and hope. Through more than 800 locally supported chapters, more than 15 million people each year gain the skills they need to prepare for and respond to emergencies in their homes, communities and world. Almost 4 million people give blood—the gift of life—through the Red Cross, making it the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The Red Cross helps thousands of U.S. service members separated from their families by military duty stay connected. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, a global network of more than 180 national societies, the Red Cross helps restore hope and dignity to the world's most vulnerable people. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.