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'Ready Campaign' Unvelied: Ads Urge Education and Preparedness Against Attacks

Date: February 20, 2003

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'Ready Campaign' Unveiled
Ads Urge Education and Preparedness Against Attacks

By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 20, 2003; Page A02

The Homeland Security Department unveiled a major new advertising campaign yesterday that uses television, radio, newspapers and billboards to urge Americans to prepare for possible terrorist attacks and educate themselves about the differences between chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The highly polished campaign, which begins today in some cities, features New York City firefighters and police officers encouraging the public to take the terrorist threat seriously without panicking.

The campaign conveys much the same information as homeland security officials publicized at a news conference Feb.10. But the earlier announcement generated confusion and concern because of a recommendation that people consider buying duct tape and plastic sheeting to construct safe rooms in their homes as a precaution against a chemical attack.

Last week's announcement was hurriedly scheduled three days after the government raised the terrorist threat level to "high risk," and was not as carefully scripted as the full-blown public education project announced yesterday. Called the "Ready Campaign," it was a year in the planning -- including intensive consultation with focus groups -- and will last for years, U.S. officials said.

"Terrorists seek to turn our neighborhoods into battlefields," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a speech yesterday in Cincinnati announcing the ads. "That is why individual citizens have an important role to play."

Ridge's agency organized the campaign with the Advertising Council, which coordinates $1.5 billion a year in public service announcements, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which does research on civil preparedness. Advertising industry officials said television and radio stations, as well as newspapers, billboard companies and other businesses likely will make available at least $80 million in free advertising for the campaign.

The industry members of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America will donate $18 million in free space, and the companies that are part of the Yellow Pages Integrated Media Association will provide $30 million worth of advertising space in 550 million telephone directories in the next year, said Ad Council President Peggy Conlon.

A main goal of the ads is to steer Americans to the department's civil preparedness Web site, www.ready.gov, or to the phone number 1-800-237-3239, where people can arrange to receive brochures.

The Web site and other literature detail how people should respond before and after various types of terrorist strikes, with sections on such topics as "Make an Emergency Kit," "Creating a Family Plan," "Deciding to Stay or Go," "In a Moving Vehicle" and "In a High-Rise Building."

The goal is to allow members of the public to take in the information at their own pace and to absorb the message that an attack is possible, but without panicking them, officials said. Ultimately, officials want Americans to outline family plans for emergencies and to feel comfortable turning to the U.S. government for advice.

"The campaign is a good thing, and it will be welcome," said Tara O'Toole, a Johns Hopkins University expert on bioterrorism preparedness and a critic of the Bush administration's terrorist planning work until now.

O'Toole, who was an Energy Department official under President Bill Clinton, added that the government's shifting of terrorist alert levels, and what she believes were U.S. officials' inconsistent comments about the 2001 anthrax attacks, have "created cynicism and anxiety in the public" that the new ad campaign might start to reduce.

The TV and radio commercials -- which are 15 to 60 seconds -- were designed free by a Richmond-based ad company, the Martin Agency, which created, among other marketing campaigns, United Parcel Service's commercials that feature Mahoney, a short pants-clad deliveryman. "We were trying to strike a balance, creating urgency without creating fear," said Martin vice president Ken Hines, who designed the campaign. After heavy testing of themes and messages with focus groups, "we realized the points had to be made by people who were the most credible, and they emerged as Tom Ridge himself and also firefighters, police officers and Port Authority officers from New York, because of their experiences," Hines said.

The ad people had the New York officers read prepared lines from teleprompters, and then let the cameras roll as they spoke extemporaneously about the dangers of terrorism and the need to prepare for it. Those were the moments that appear in the television and radio ads.

"They felt so strongly, and got so stirred up about it, they came across very powerfully," Hines said.

Homeland security officials had planned this rollout for months, but when the terrorist alert was raised to "high" Feb. 7, they concluded it would be irresponsible to withhold from the public the information in the still-evolving campaign.

They held a news briefing Feb. 10 to draw attention to existing Web sites that contain some of the same advice. But a department official, relatively inexperienced with the news media, included in his list of recommendations purchasing duct tape and plastic, although most experts say these items are unlikely ever to be used and should be characterized as second-tier equipment.

"I can say perhaps we could have done things slightly differently" in hindsight, one U.S. official said of the episode.

 

 

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