Ten Years Later
By David McKay Wilson
Every day, Jay Winuk sees reminders of his brother’s death on September 11. There’s the dense chunk of World Trade Center steel he keeps on the mantelpiece of the stone fireplace in his suburban New York home. In his office upstairs, you’ll find the late Glenn Winuk’s wristwatch (unearthed from the rubble), his volunteer firefighter’s helmet and his gleaming 9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor—awarded posthumously after his brother fought for eight years for recognition of his sacrifice.
This year’s 10th anniversary of 9/11 carried reminders on a grander stage, as hundreds of thousands of Americans volunteered in their communities as part of the National Day of Service and Remembrance. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act authorizing the day, capping an eight-year campaign by Winuk (’82) and MyGoodDeed, the organization he cofounded, to remember his brother and the thousands who died in the attacks in lower Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa.
Winuk’s brother, a 40-year-old attorney working a block from the Twin Towers that crystal-clear morning in 2001, was also a volunteer firefighter in their hometown of Jericho, N.Y. After the planes struck, he sprang into action, escorting workers from his building before rushing to the World Trade Center to aid in the rescue. Then the towers crumbled, burying Winuk amid the pile of twisted metal and debris.
“The day of service provides a productive way to look forward while still paying tribute and looking back at those who perished,” says Winuk, president of Winuk Communications and vice president of MyGoodDeed. “It [demonstrates] lessons learned from the tragedy as well, putting a spotlight on how people came together in its immediate aftermath to get the nation back on its feet.”
Winuk has traveled a remarkable journey since the Sept. 11 attacks, using PR skills to transform his personal grief into a national movement to promote volunteerism. He has forged partnerships with disparate stakeholders, worked closely with the media, and found common ground with both corporate America, which has generously supported MyGoodDeed, and political leaders of both parties, who helped realize Winuk’s dream.
The nonprofit group raised more than $2 million to observe the 10th anniversary, which Winuk worked to make “the greatest day of service in the nation’s history.” That day, MyGoodDeed, in partnership with the HandsOn Network, staged events in more than 20 cities, including major happenings in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.
The build-up began over the summer. In mid-July, Winuk put together an event with the National 9/11 Flag, a tattered Old Glory recovered from Ground Zero. It has toured all 50 states, becoming a symbol of healing as it’s been stitched back together by citizens. The flag arrived in Washington, D.C., at a gathering of congressional leaders and 9/11 victims’ family members held to formally announce the plans for the 10th anniversary to the national media.
He also convened a town hall meeting at Jericho High, the brothers’ Long Island alma mater, to build support for volunteerism among high school students. The event provided material for a DVD that will augment a curriculum developed for the 10th anniversary.
The seeds of a career
Winuk Communications is helping lead MyGoodDeed’s public relations campaign, which Winuk says now takes up about half of his working hours.
“In the past, we were promoting events, but now we are staging them as well,” says Winuk. “I could use another 12 hours in the day.”
Public relations consultant Cindy Miller (’82), says Winuk’s ability to bring people together was evident in their classes at BU, and later in New York City, where they both broke into the industry at Burson-Marsteller, the well-known international PR firm.
“He’s among the rare individuals who could create something so positive from something so horrific,” says Miller, of Short Hills, N.J., who has worked on projects for Winuk. “There’s no one better to pull together all the facets. Back in grad school, Jay would pull people from different circles and make it all work.”
Winuk’s emergence as a national leader in the wake of 9/11 grew out of his experience in PR, which began at COM’s graduate program in 1980 under a series of memorable professors, now emeriti. He learned to shape stories and create press materials in classes with Gerald Powers. He learned about the needs of the media from Otto Lerbinger. And Carol Hills opened his eyes to the world of public relations agencies, bringing him and his classmates to Manhattan to meet professionals on the front lines.
An internship at the Boston Boys & Girls Club developed into a full-time gig following graduation. Next he headed for Manhattan, first landing a job at GS Schwartz & Co., then moving to Burson-Marsteller, where he worked for three years on campaigns for such clients as Coca-Cola and General Foods. He left to help open the New York office of GolinHarris, which was then representing the city of West Berlin as the Berlin Wall fell. Winuk later became director of public relations at Radio City Music Hall, promoting events that included Michael Jackson’s half-time show at Super Bowl XXVII.
By 1994, he decided to set up his own shop. At his boutique firm, Winuk Communications, Winuk collaborates with a stable of experienced independent practitioners on a wide range of public-relations projects.
“I figured if I was going to work this hard, I’d like to have more control over my career and my future,” he says.
Putting PR to work for a cause
Little did Winuk know that his PR chops would be put to the test to help heal his family, and the nation. The days following 9/11 were especially wrenching for the Winuks. They were among the hundreds of families holding out hope that their loved one might be found—in an emergency room, wandering the streets in a daze, or miraculously still alive under the pile of smoldering debris. Glenn Winuk’s remains were found that fall.
Winuk soon joined with David Paine, a colleague from his days at Burson-Marsteller and founder of Paine PR, to start their campaign for a national day of service.
Winuk says the decision to remember the attacks with a day of volunteer service was inspired by his brother’s valiant volunteer efforts that day and the flood of compassion that buoyed his family through those agonizing days following the attacks.
“Losing Glenn was life-changing for me,” says Winuk. “The way people rallied around our family was extraordinary. And from the bubble that we were in, we could see the outpouring of people trying to help. No matter who you were, where you lived, whether you were young or old, it didn’t matter. People stepped forward to help, [in ways] large and small.”
First called One Day’s Pay, the campaign changed its name in 2005 to MyGoodDeed to better reflect Winuk’s and Paine’s idea of voluntary service to honor the dead and rebuild the nation.
In 2008, the campaign triumphed with an event at Columbia University on 9/11, at which presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain discussed how they would usher in a new era of civic engagement.
“Jay is a bridge builder, who deeply respects those who don’t agree with him, and finds a way to bring people around to a common vision,” says AnnMaura Connolly, chief strategy officer for City Year, which was a partner in the 2008 event. “It takes smarts, humility and deep respect, and Jay’s got it all.”
This fall’s commemoration was the culmination of years of work and a particularly intense spring and summer. In early June, Winuk traveled to New Orleans for the 2011 National Conference on Volunteering and Service, where he promoted the National Day of Service to 4,000 leaders of nonprofit organizations.
That trip came less than a month after he was in lower Manhattan with President Obama to mark the death of Osama bin Laden, killed in the Navy SEALS’ May 1 raid on the terrorist leader’s Pakistani lair. Winuk was among 40 members of 9/11 families who met privately with Obama at Ground Zero, where the 9/11 Memorial and Museum opened in September, and where the 102-story One World Trade Center is rising skyward.
“We had our five minutes, and I wanted to make sure the president knew Glenn’s story of heroism,” recalls Winuk, who lives in Carmel, N.Y., with his wife, Carolyn; son, Justin, 14; and daughter, Melanie, 8.
Bin Laden’s killing once again vaulted Winuk into the news. As an accessible spokesman for the 9/11 victims’ families and a media-savvy promoter of the National Day of Service and Remembrance, he had built close relationships with journalists over the past decade, and he now found himself in high demand. Soon after bin Laden’s death was announced, Winuk’s phone started ringing with calls from National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and Fox News.
Such press calls gave Winuk a fresh look at what his clients face when writers seek them out on deadline.
“I’m wearing two hats,” says Winuk. “On the public relations side, I’m the guy who is putting people in front of the media. Yet as the cofounder of MyGoodDeed, [I find] the cameras are turned around on me as I deliver the message. I’ve been training my clients to do that for my entire career, and now I’m using these skills in my own life.”
His availability after bin Laden’s death boosted MyGoodDeed’s profile and gave him another opportunity to share his brother’s memory with the world. He provided readers and listeners with his optimistic response, from inside the community of 9/11 victims’ families, to a world yearning for a brighter day.
“Perhaps we have turned the tide, even just a little,” says Winuk. “No one knows for sure whether the elimination of this figure of death will result in more or less safety for the innocent people of the world. But I do have hope.”