In the Deep End: Studying Crisis Communication Through Real-World Scenarios
by: Julia Strother
Dr. Yan Jin’s Crisis Communication class has never been known to stay within the constraints of a traditional lecture-driven course. With the majority of the semester spent developing a crisis plan for a local organization, students soon learn that textbooks fail to fully capture the detailed preparation and pressure of a real crisis. Even so, when a simulation exercise was announced in class students had no idea how intense this drill would become.
The proposed scenario was that a news outlet had reported on products associated with a pharmaceutical corporation were associated with a heightened risk of breast cancer. The class was thus split into three groups: the corporation communication department, the legal team and the media. Students initially laughed off Dr. Jin’s warnings about rising tensions; we thought the exercise would be enjoyable. Then, the simulation began. A member of the communication department, it was our job now to craft statements, prepare a press conference and train our spokesperson.
This challenge presented myriad challenges. We had no previous crisis plan, received a limited amount of up-to-date information and were facing mounting pressure to deliver a statement. It was the perfect storm. The next hour was a whirlwind of debating how much blame to take, scrambling to craft an appropriate announcement and rehearsing our position with our CEO. Before we knew it – certainly before we were ready – it was time for the press conference to begin.
Traditional public relations courses often end with students believing their role finishes once the plan is formulated, the statement written, and the spokesperson trained. However, the simulated press conference quickly dismissed any such misconceptions. Instead, we spent the entirety of the cross examination urgently trying to navigate through precarious legal territory, provide reactions to rapid-fire criticism and write appropriate responses to seemingly endless questioning.
Despite cautionary tales concerning the lasting tensions that had emerged between groups in past semesters, our class remained skeptical. But as the simulation continued, tensions rapidly rose. When the class arrived at its relieving close, students began to realize how unprepared we had been for such an immersive experience. No one was ready for the frustrations and emotions of the situation. Our only solace was that as we filed out of the classroom, resentful or not, our simulation was finally over.
Although this was a classroom exercise, Dr. Jin perfectly captured the chaos of an unseen and unplanned crisis. We were thrown into a world of emotional nuances, ad-hominem attacks and press conference nerves. These cannot be conveyed by lectures or slideshows.
Although our inexperience was evident, this scenario emphasized the importance of interactive exercises in public relations education. By providing students the chance to develop important techniques in a controlled environment, the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication is training the next generation of practitioners to effectively deal with crises in an increasingly complex communications landscape.
March 3, 2020