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September 11 Museum Connects Stories to World Stage


When Michael Frazier jumped industries — from veteran journalist to marketing executive — he didn’t leave his beat-reporter spirit far behind. Now head of communications and marketing at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Frazier says that a shared purpose between the institution and his media past drew him to the museum. “Preserving historical record — that’s what the news does, that’s what a museum does,” he says.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum tells the story of September 11, 2001 — the forces leading up to September 11, the day itself, the attack’s aftermath, and the continuing implications. The memorial plaza, with its enormous twin reflecting pools, honors the 2,983 people killed in both the 2001 and 1993 attacks.


The museum displays more than 10,000 objects significant to the event. Since opening, more than 24 million people have visited the memorial, while more than 5 million have visited the museum.


Frazier joined the National September 11 Memorial & Museum after more than a decade of work as a journalist; his last stint was with Newsday as bureau chief at New York City Hall. True to his journalistic roots, Frazier runs the museum’s communications team as a newsroom — structuring it to do much more than promote exhibitions and events. His scope includes strategic marketing, social media, mobile and digital communications, and content partnerships. His purpose, though, as he sees it, is to uncover and publish the stories that will keep the museum relevant for decades to come, stories that are of interest to consumers of various media.

That nose for news is the second common bond Frazier sees between his old and new jobs. As he says, “If you have a knack for recognizing a good story — you can do really well in this job.”

Pitch less, help more

Having worked in the media trenches, Frazier knows a trick or two about getting a journalist’s attention. The key, he says, is in building relationships through relevance. No matter how compelling your pitch may seem to you (or your boss), you’ve got to know whether your contacts will see it the same way — and why. Consider how your story is of service to them and their audience, and then help them connect the dots, he says.

To get a journalist’s attention, build relationships through relevance says @jmichaelfrazier. Share on X

“When I was a journalist, people called me all the time,” Frazier recalls. “They might have had something great to give me, but it got lost in white noise. They didn’t know what I covered and definitely had not read the last story I wrote. You can’t just call a journalist and expect a favor. It’s a mutual relationship.”

You can’t just call a journalist and expect a favor. It’s a mutual relationship says @jmichaelfrazier. Share on X

Frazier’s team, in contrast, builds its reputation as a solid news source by showing respect for their media contacts. “I want our team to know a lot about the journalists and bloggers we want to reach. We don’t just shout our story from the hilltops — no one would be interested. We understand their jobs and deadlines, wait until we have something special, and then give them something worth reporting,” he says.

The result: Their media contacts know that if the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is calling, it isn’t a PR stunt.

To create those relationships for your brand, Frazier says, consume the news and follow trends that are of interest to the journalists who routinely cover your organization so you can have earnest and real interactions with them and, by extension, their audience. Bring others into the fold who may not typically cover your company by finding a connection or source of information that may tangentially fall within their beats, sparking interest in areas related to your programs.

“I’ve sent short emails, texted, and messaged journalists commenting on stories they’ve covered that were unrelated to the memorial and museum but that I thought were handled really well,” says Frazier. “If they have time, they are always happy to talk about what made the story and what didn’t. I’ve similarly contacted digital content developers, designers, and other marketers about the work they produced that I admired or envied. These brief, important connections help journalists understand what your interests are and allow you to learn more about their approach to stories. Creating an environment for discovery is critical. It fosters a relationship in which reporters now instinctively seek you out for comment on a multitude of topics that are mutually beneficial in terms of coverage. Now you can focus less on pounding the phones, hoping for coverage. Who wants to spend all of their time doing that?”

The downtime before a big event — such as an announcement at an industry show — is also a good time to feel the pulse of the media corps. If you can, take a break from your checklists, Frazier says, and duck under the stanchions to chat with reporters about what big story they wished they had a chance to cover. Don’t just pass the time; be genuinely curious.

For media specialists and marketers who don’t find the time to make these connections without having strings attached, you will only find yourself working harder just to achieve the simplest of objectives. This remarkable digital age can be overwhelming, with information bombarding you all the time and with several channels to manage to grow. Methodically building these relationships has never been easier because of the ubiquity of connected media. You can cover more ground by making some small commitments that reap big returns in the short and longer term.

You can’t be the lede all the time

For Frazier, keeping the museum relevant means expanding the narrative of the institution, and even more, understanding that the stories the museum can influence aren’t always the obvious ones. This is something the president of the organization, Joe Daniels, and the leadership of the museum are striving to do and support. Frazier explains that it’s impossible to be the hot topic every day, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit out the story.

An organization can offer context, depth, and substantiation to breaking events and trending topics — even when your name isn’t in the headline. This can happen on the record or off the record. Frazier’s team can help pinpoint who within the institution can contribute expertise to a particular story — be it about security at the World Trade Center site or the power of ISIS recruiting.

As an example, Frazier shares the museum’s approach to Pope Francis’ 2015 U.S. tour. From the moment the Vatican announced the tour, Frazier flagged it as a priority. His team began considering: How is the museum tied to this larger story? What are the common themes to our mission and the Pope’s mission? After considering several storylines, the team settled on a narrative: inspirational artifacts.

Some of the museum’s 10,000 objects took on religious and inspirational significance in the days and years after the attack, among them the intersecting steel beam known as The Cross at Ground Zero, as well as all the personal objects such as a fallen firefighter’s Saint Florian pendant and an open Bible fused to a piece of metal recovered from Ground Zero. These objects not only had powerful stories tied to September 11 and its aftermath, they also would be of great interest to the pope and the people who revered him.

When the tour finally arrived, “Pope Visits United States” dominated the headlines. Offering a compelling side-story helped the museum rise above the clamor, landing it mentions ahead of the thousands of historically, culturally, and religiously significant sites also vying to be part of the show.

“It was an important visit,” explains Frazier. “The memorial and museum are nationally significant. We wanted to provide the stories that could be understood and shared around the world and that is what our organization accomplished.”

The result was nearly 2 billion media impressions for North America alone. For coordinated livestreams, including on social media sites like Periscope, online viewers from 107 countries witnessed the event. From The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, from ABC to CNN, the convening power of the memorial and museum was widely shown.

For Frazier and his team, communications and marketing’s role is to work with the leadership and board of the nonprofit institution to expand the relevance of the museum and connect the events of 2001 to issues that reverberate today. This duty to history — a devotion Frazier recognizes in common between his old and new jobs — remains his primary motivation. “I want everyone to experience the museum. I want to make sure people don’t forget what happened here,” he says.

From a single event, many stories

“We look at genuine ways that we can make the conversation broader,” Frazier says of his role as a marketer in such a historic institution. Fifteen years after September 11, Frazier says the museum stays relevant by urging an examination of a number of issues related to that single day and its ongoing impact on the world in which we live — from topics in science (e.g., the limits of DNA and forensic science, September 11-related sicknesses) to the political (e.g., topics in foreign affairs and national security) and even the emotional and spiritual realms.

Sadly, many communities in crisis have reached out to the museum to understand how to commemorate tragedy with both sensitivity and dignity. For example, the museum’s chief curator offered expert advice to Boston in the wake of the Boston Marathon attacks, helping officials grapple with how to collect materials and curate them in ways that help us understand, remember, and grieve.

The museum’s director reached out to officials in France after the deadly terror attacks in Paris. And the Newtown, Connecticut community sought counsel from the museum’s president in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. “We happen to be a repository of globally significant history,” explains Frazier. “We look at modeling that mission with communities around the world. We have the tools and leadership to help these conversations develop in the right way.”

This article originally appeared in the August issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute