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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Red Cross President McGovern Says Increasing Citizen Preparedness Is A Top Priority

February 2nd, 2009 · 1 Comment

A former top business executive is recruited from the private sector to take over one of the country’s most venerated non-profit organizations at a crucial moment in its history right in the midst of a national economic crisis. Sounds like a managerial situation that might be found in one of the famous case studies from the Harvard Business School. So, it is probably a good thing that the ex-corporate exec now facing this situation comes directly from those same classrooms. In fact, Gail McGovern, the new President of the American Red Cross, was until June a Marketing professor at Harvard.

Previously, McGovern had a distinguished business career at such major corporations as AT&T and Fidelity Investments. And, it is clear that she is bringing a lot of lessons from her business experience to the Red Cross. I had the opportunity to speak with McGovern about public preparedness at the Red Cross’ Washington, D.C. headquarters in October. (Due to illness, I was not able to write it up until now.) She also recorded a “What Should We Tell The Public?” video.

McGovern told me that increasing citizen preparedness is a top priority for her. In fact, one of her objectives is to make the Red Cross as synonymous with readying the public for disasters as it is with responding to them.

She called the challenge of preparing the public “a very tough nut” in part because the “human spirit is optimistic” and people don’t want to think about bad things happening. (A Red Cross survey found that only 7% of Americans are fully prepared for a major disaster.) 

Yet, McGovern is herself optimistic about making progress. She sees it as somewhat similar to a consumer marketing challenge she faced at Fidelity — trying to get Americans to save for retirement. Both are off- putting tasks that people know they should do but don’t want to focus on.  

McGovern wants to make preparedness seem less like an antiseptic chore and more of a engaging, community-building, even enjoyable activity. (”We made exercise seem fun. why can’t we make preparedness seem fun?” she notes.) McGovern also hopes to better integrate the subject of preparedness into people’s everyday lives at all ages (ie. in schools).   

As a consumer marketing expert, McGovern knows better than most how difficult it is to influence public behavior. And the Red Cross’ financial constraints, not to mention its myriad other responsibilities, makes the educational task even more challenging. But one asset the Red Cross can capitalize upon is its highly positive brand equity with the public both nationally and in communities around the U.S.

This blog will continue to follow and report on how this management ‘case study’ unfolds.

Gail J. McGovern meeting Red Cross staff by American Red Cross.


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