How to get ahead as a PR practitioner in times of crisis

Andrea Miller, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the Manship School of Mass Communication, spoke to our environmental communication class about crisis communication.

From a journalism and strategic communication perspective, one needs to take a step back from the coverage to analyze how it flows.

“Mass communication does breaking news very well. We play an important role during normal times and it is increased in times of crisis.” -Miller

In situations where the information receiver is interested, the situation is relevant, or crisis occurs, it is human nature to seek out more information. The anxiety theory states that in times of crisis, it is instinctive for people to look for more information to decrease fear and anxiety.

“As mass communicators, we are hunter-gathers, getting information and using it to serve our audiences and publics during times of crisis to decrease fear and anxiety.” -Miller

Crisis in public relations is defined as “a negative situation (either expected or unexpected) that if left unattended could disrupt the everyday operations/routine of a business, organization or individual.”

A current PR crisis example would be the hospital in Dallas that the first Ebola victim visited. These crises usually end in monetary and reputation damage. From a PR perspective, the goal during crises is to manage it. This means contain the crisis to prevent economic consequences and save reputations. To make good decisions in managing crises, all information is needed.

Miller presented the stages of a crisis in public relations and journalism/press.

Here are the stages in PR:

  1. Detection
    • Prodrome – this is when a bad situation or crisis that happens to somebody else or a business similar to yours. An example of this would be the nurse in Spain contracting Ebola. This is a prodrome for the Dallas hospital. People will assume Ebola can get out of Africa, it has gotten out, so this means the same situation can happen here.
  2. Prevention/Preparation
    • An example of prevention would be health care workers are getting Ebola. We need to put in protection in high-traffic international airports and hospitals. The question to answer here is “how do we contain?”
  3. Containment
    • In crises, you want to keep negative messages from spreading. Controlling the narrative of the press can be accomplished by being transparent and honest while trying to avoid disruption to business.
  4. Recovery
    • This can happen over immense periods of time. For example, Louisiana is still recovering from Katrina’s reputation.
  5. Learning
    • As a PR professional, you create a crisis plan with these steps. After each step is completed, you look back at what went right, what went wrong, and fix it for each stage.

In journalism, a crisis is a negative event (expected or unexpected) that interrupts daily routine and demands additional time, attention, and resources to gather information.

The stages in journalism/press are very similar to the stages in public relations.

  1. Detecting
    1. Hear a potential story on a scanner or through social media
  2. Describing event
    • In journalism, a serious time crunch with the demand for information skyrockets when a crisis first occurs. Describing an event can take a long time. The wrong information can be presented at the beginning of a crisis because of this pressure to disseminate information immediately.
    • Describing the crisis in the press is making sense of the event, giving perspective, and over time, correcting the information presented and analyzing what happened.
  3. Preparing audiences to cope with the after effects
    • Press has distinctive duties. Many argue these duties go beyond the simple transmission of information, especially for local media because they are in the community 24/7. The two additional duties of the press we discussed are linkage and social utility.
      • Social utility is about helping the community cope with the crisis. An example with national media is the weather channel gives casts saying “we,” “I,” and “us.” These personal pronouns are used to connect with the audiences.
      • Linkage relates to linking the community with information and resources that can help.
  4. Learning

“You can only improve by going back, dissecting and learning.” -Miller

If you look at the public relations and press stages of crisis side-by-side, you can see that even though there are different goals, if PR knows the other side, it can make sure the right information is disseminated to the press when it is relevant and when they need it. Every crisis is different. Each requires different media coverage and responses but there will be similarities.

Media has the tendency to put forward conventional imagery. Conventional imagery is stock footage that we know we will see in crisis events. When a crime is reported, the image is usually police tape with cop lights.
When a hurricane rips through cities, the image replayed in the media is people on roofs being rescued. Certain types of images become icons for specific crises. When an oil spill devastates an environment, eventually images of birds covered in oil flood the media. First the rig blows up, then oil is in the water, then the oil is on the land, and finally oil appears on the birds. These emotional images are powerful. Through this use of conventional imagery, non-routine events become routine. As a public relations professional, by recognizing these images are coming, you can be ready for them. When an oil spill occurs, you should immediately be in contact with wildlife experts. Don’t wait until the images of birds covered in oil hit the television screens. Think “How can I get beyond these images?”

If you know these crisis stages, you can think about the analysis and how this crisis is going to go. In environmental crises, before they occur, have experts available to speak.

You can create messages that will be ahead of the game.

Maddie Duhon


One thought on “How to get ahead as a PR practitioner in times of crisis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s