The fourth annual Crisis Communication Think Tank (CCTT) took place at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication on Thursday, April 14. Continuing in our mission to bring together academics and practitioners, this gathering sought to further discussions of crisis practice, theory and education. As the first in-person Think Tank gathering since 2019, this year’s event – “Power of People” (POP) – sought to bridge the gap between the ever-evolving groups and ideologies in contemporary society.
The nuances of “POP” – Permanence of Polarization, Problem of Polarization, Prevention of Polarization, Pushback of Publics, Pressure of Perfection and Privilege of Perspective – outline the myriad functions of crisis communication while accounting for the role of people in these scenarios. Organized as a three-act play, the gathering divided the six major “POP” concepts into Setup: Polarization and Confrontation: We, the People. Often, public relations experts forget that real people with goals and motivations are at the center of these complex issues. This year, speakers took these concepts as an opportunity to share their research and created a platform for members to incorporate additional ideas.
Timothy Coombs, a professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University, opened the program with an insightful discussion of the “Permanence of Polarization.” Coombs led a conversation on the recent controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida and assessed the backlash corporations have received following their silence and compliance.
Timothy and Deanna Sellnow – professors of communication at the University of Central Florida – then offered insight and commentary into the “Problem of Polarization” and discussed how to approach crises when audiences have already (often firmly) chosen their side.
This discussion centered on the polarization between convergence and divergence, as well as the recent societal shift towards the latter. The Sellnows shared tools that could be used to accelerate progress to the former and hosted a lively dialogue among Think Tank members.
Joe Watson, Carolyn Caudell Tieger Professor of Public Affairs Communications at the University of Georgia, shared advice on handling conflict and identifying who to champion in times of uncertainty. “In some cases, we must prepare C-Suite for the notion of good trouble,” said Watson on organizations picking their battles wisely during crisis.
Chris Glazier, Vice President at Porter Novelli, noted the presence of the “say-do” gap that exists in organizations following burnout from several crises. Citing sociopolitical scenarios that have arisen since 2020, Glazier commented that stakeholders can see a gap between statements that organizations have released and the actions they do (or do not take) to support them.
While discussing convergence and inquiring how the public relations industry can return to a state of unity, Kate LaVail of Ketchum PR noted that “the more you are able to decentralize in decision making, the more you can offer ownership and agency to your stakeholders.”
CCTT members unanimously agreed that moving power from a central unit and redistributing it throughout an organization is the wisest avenue for crisis communicators to take in the hopes of avoiding another divergence surge.
Michael Greenwell of ICF later spoke on the “Prevention of Polarization.” Members discussed the urgent necessity of lessening the current divide in society and in public relations. Greenwell raised numerous issues, including the alarming statistic that the percentage of Americans who stated they would not want their children marrying someone from another political party had risen from 20% to approximately 90% in recent years. This set the stage for a discussion of the many topics where Americans are simply unwilling to compromise. Indeed, large swaths of society prefer to see further divides for us and generations to come.
As the conversation continued through the day, the Think Tank agreed that empathy is essential to lessened polarization and an increased understanding of opponents, even if that means being wrong, must be attempted.
April 19, 2022
By: Morgan Ford, Morgan.Ford@uga.edu