When You See 2 Helicopters Hovering...

In a moment, everything can change.

image from the front page of The New York Times
At 12:42 p.m. on just four months after the devastating September 11 terrorist attack on America a devastating 5-alarm fire was in full progress at an 80-year old landmark church in Ridgewood, N.J., just miles from Manhattan.

By 1 p.m. when Caugherty Hahn Communications’ Lisa Hahn arrived, two news helicopters were hovering overhead broadcasting images of the fire locally and nationwide via CNN, MSNBC, and the New York City stations.

Within 30 minutes, every news outlet in the New York metro area was on site. All media outlets needed information immediately, and strong leadership was required to bring order and accurate information to reporters.

Lisa, a lifelong member of the church, West Side Presbyterian, and secretary of the Board of Trustees, quickly briefed the senior pastor, ministers and staff on what to expect, appropriate questions to respond to, and to avoid speculation, while reassuring the community with their comments. Hahn ascertained that the church leadership were ready to handle inquiries, and coordinated spokespeople. The primary goal and message was clear—the church is a community of people not a building, and the faith and mission work would not be interrupted.

Members needed comforting and reassurance, so that evening a worship service and briefing was arranged at a public school next door, which was heavily attended by New York and New Jersey news organizations. During the day, the minister, fire and police chiefs gave two press briefings, arranged by CHC.

The result of effectively handling this crisis?
  • More than $500,000 in unsolicited cash donations were received from the community, faith organizations, and businesses within a few months after the fire.
  • More than 120 news stories were logged over the initial week, with an equivalent ad value of $3.5 million.
  • The Associated Press ran multiple stories with photos nationally, reaching West Side friends and members across the country.
  • The New York Times published three stories including a Page One color photo of the charred sanctuary cross and a feature on the church’s mission work during the initial weeks. The paper continued to update readers on major developments of the church’s rebuilding progress.
  • Free facility space was given for worship, nursery school and office. The office space alone was valued at $60,000 and was given in response to The New York Times coverage.
  • The Record, the leading local daily newspaper provided eight stories, including three front-page features during the initial weeks helped keep the community informed of the church’s activities and mission projects.
  • Within hours of the fire, area churches, synagogues and community groups offered assistance.
  • Members and more than 20,000 visitors were kept informed and recorded messages on the church Web site, www.westside.org, which was designed by CHC.
  • Congregates were kept informed of all developments, as a result, attendance at services increased 75%; the youth unanimously voted to continue plans for their mission trips; and the dozen choirs continued rehearsal with little disruption.
West Side Presbyterian Church celebrated the opening of the new sanctuary complex during Easter 2006, and has remained strong ever since.

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