Crisis Communication Think Tank connects academics and PR professionals in a unique program

Crisis communication is one of the biggest challenges facing public relations professionals, but until very recently there were few opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to learn the practical lessons of this increasingly important specialty in an academic setting.

Crisis Communication Think Tank sign
The last in-person Crisis Communication Think Tank with industry professionals and academic scholars took place at UGA in 2019. (Photo: Anna Leigh Herndon (AB ’19))

Now, thanks to a unique program at the University of Georgia, industry practitioners and academic scholars are collaborating to address emerging topics and provide insight for navigating these difficult situations.

The Crisis Communication Think Tank (CCTT), hosted by the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, is one of the few PR programs to create a collaboration of practitioners and academics focused on crisis communication topics. Members of the CCTT will collaborate in person at Grady College on April 14 to discuss this year’s theme, Power of People.

“When we sit down at the same table, we talk about issues and unpack the value of what we do for practitioners,” said Yan Jin, the Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Grady College and co-founder of the CCTT. “We find out from them what research questions are most important. And, in turn, it’s very enriching to see practitioners utilize the theory-based research insights we develop to inform their practice in a meaningful way.”

The CCTT is supported by the Crisis Communication Coalition, a Grady College program dedicated to providing research for crisis communication professionals, resources for journalists and education for students. In addition to Jin, other CCTT co-founders include Bryan Reber, the C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership and head of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations, and Glen Nowak, associate dean for graduate studies and research and co-director of the Center for Health & Risk Communication.

“Crisis communication is an ever-growing and nuanced topic, whether you are just learning about it as public relations student or a seasoned professional who deals with crisis on a regular basis,” Reber said. “Many of our faculty specialize in crisis communication research so it makes sense that we take the lead in this conversation and collaboration. Bringing crisis comm professionals and scholars together is also a benefit for our graduate students who are studying crisis communication.”

The think tank hosts approximately 15 PR practitioners, including executives from American Airlines, Cox Communications, UPS and the American Medical Association, together with approximately 15 scholars from the University of Alabama, University of Maryland and Penn State University, among others.

This is the fourth year the CCTT has met and each year it has covered a different topic around one of the program’s core pillars: crisis communication in organizations, public health and emerging technology. A tangible output is produced from each Think Tank gathering, as well. For example, when the CCTT focused on “Sticky Crisis” in 2019, a book collaboration was initiated which resulted in the publication of “Advancing Crisis Communication Effectiveness,” in 2021.

In 2021, a virtual conference was held focusing on global disrupters and artificial intelligence. The output was a video series that is housed on the CCTT resources webpage and used by crisis communication classes around the country, together with other resources the CCTT creates.

This year’s Think Tank and beyond

Jin explains that this year’s theme, Power of People, focuses on the polarized media landscape and discourse. The group will discuss what crisis communication professionals and scholars can do to address some of these challenges through authentic and effective communication.

“Polarization is a problem, and we want to come up with solutions,” Jin explains. “This is an opportunity to join research and practice and unlock the power of collaboration. We want to start the conversation to find common ground.”

The Think Tank also benefits from several international ties including members from Brazil and the Netherlands, and Jin said there is interest in expanding more in the global space.

Educating today’s students for tomorrow’s crisis

One of the greatest benefits of the program is the education it affords students working directly with professionals.

A group of students listen intently to a Crisis Communication Think Tank speaker
A group of Ph.D. students listen to a presentation during the 2019 Crisis Communication Think Tank. (Photo: Sarah Freeman/Dayne Young)

Each year, the CCTT is coordinated by several Ph.D. students and two undergraduates who are selected to serve as crisis communication interns.

One of those original crisis interns was Maria Stagliano, who after graduation, accepted her dream job with Levick, a crisis communication firm in Washington, D.C.

“Without the CCTT and Grady’s encouragement to explore crisis communications as students, I wouldn’t be where I am today in my career,” Stagliano said. “Not many universities offer crisis communications courses or opportunities to engage with crisis communications professionals prior to graduation. Grady’s emphasis on providing students with chances to have experiences and networking opportunities prior to graduation provides them a leg up in the world of crisis communications as future practitioners.”

Stagliano believes that facilitating this collaborative and exploratory environment is a huge benefit to all involved.

She continues: “The marriage of academic and crisis communications in practice is essential to understanding how crisis communications will evolve with time, new technologies, social challenges and more.”

Richard Yarbrough has been an active participant and supporter of the CCTT since its beginning.

He learned about crisis communication when he served as managing director of communication for the 1996 Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and oversaw the response for the subsequent Centennial Park bombing.

“I want to take the benefit of experience and pass it along to the next generation,” Yarbrough said of his support of the program.

The 2020-2021 North American Communication Monitor identifies trends and challenges in a year of continuous crisis


Juan Meng and Bryan Reber will join Karla Gower, Ansgar Zerfass and Bridget Coffing in a panel discussion about the NACM on Wednesday, June 9 at 11 a.m. EST on the Plank Center Facebook page. All are invited to watch this free discussion.

In one of the most unusual years of our lifetime, the 2020-2021 North American Communication Monitor (NACM), organized and conducted by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, disclosed key trends and challenges facing the communication profession.

Grady College professor Juan Meng, associate professor of public relations, was the lead researcher for the report and Bryan Reber, C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership and research chair for The Plank Center, was an  author.

Some highlights include:

  • Seven out of 10 professionals were satisfied with their organization’s communication and management during the COVID-19 pandemic, although the satisfaction level significantly decreased as the scope of the leadership responsibility
  • Professionals in the U.S. were significantly more likely than their Canadian counterparts to report ethical challenges, and most ethical concerns are related to social media
  • More than half of professionals confirmed their organization had been a victim of cyberattack or data theft.
  • Nearly half (49.5%) of surveyed women acknowledged the impact of the glass ceiling in leadership advancement.
  • While building and maintaining trust remains as the top strategic issue for the communication profession, tackling diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) presents a pressing
  • Professionals recognize the need to improve competencies, especially in data, technology, and management.

The North American Communication Monitor results are based on responses from 1,046 communication professionals working in different types of organizations (25.6% in Canada and 74.4% in the United States). The sample achieved a fairly balanced gender split (47.7% men and 52.1% women) for accurate comparisons. The average age of participants was 41.2 years.

Bridget Coffing, chair of The Plank Center Board of Advisors, said, “In these unprecedented times and amid a rapidly changing landscape, the global pandemic accelerated trends around ethics, cyber security, and gender and racial inequality. The NACM provides insights into how those trends impacted communication professionals and brought into focus the skill set required to advance authentic, transparent messaging in an age of misinformation.”

This newest edition of NACM, which joins existing Communication Monitors in Europe, Latin America and Asia-Pacific, explored diverse topics, including COVID-19 and communication professionals’ responses, ethical challenges and resources for communication professionals, cybersecurity and communications, gender equality in the profession, strategic issues and communication channels, competency development, salaries, and characteristics of excellent communication departments.

Meng, Juan
Juan Meng, director of the AdPR Choose China Maymester Program, is the lead researcher for the 2020-2021 North American Communication Monitor.

Meng said: “One of the leading trends revealed by this edition of NACM confirms that change is constant and inevitable. The combined impacts of the pandemic and the digital transformation of communications during times of social and racial unrest call for a strong leadership more than ever to hold your communication accountable while developing new ways of value creation. This edition of NACM offers data-driven insights to explain the difficulties communicators faced, the lessons learned, what core competencies are here to stay, and what new skills need to be acquired and reflected upon.”

Most professionals acknowledged COVID-19 is a heavily discussed topic.

Overall, clear evidence is found that the COVID-19 pandemic is a heavily discussed topic (83.2%). Professionals also confirmed that the impact of the pandemic on their daily work is significant (65.8%) but much higher for professionals in Canada (70.9%). Seven of 10 respondents felt their organizations did a satisfactory job managing changes associated with the pandemic.

Gender comparisons revealed a significant gap. Women perceived the pandemic as a heavily discussed topic, but men reported a significantly higher level of impact on their daily work (70.0% vs. 62.3%). Professionals working in public companies reported a significantly higher level of direct impact. Results also showed a significant correlation between leadership position and perceived direct impact. For example, top communication leaders reported the highest impact of the pandemic on their daily work.

Six out of 10 communication professionals in North America encountered one or more ethical challenges in the past year.

Communicators face ethical challenges in their day-to-day work. Professionals in the U.S. were significantly more likely than their Canadian counterparts to report ethical challenges. When dealing with ethical challenges, most professionals relied on the ethical guidelines of their organization. At the same time, the code of ethics of professional associations and their personal values and beliefs were also important resources.

Ethical concerns related to social media strategies are particularly relevant. Professionals were most concerned about the use of bots to generate feedback and followers on social media.

They were also concerned about paying social media influencers for favorable mentions. In addition, professionals working in public companies were more concerned about profiling and targeting audiences based on big data analyses.

More than half of professionals confirmed their organization was a victim of cyberattack or data theft.

The reliance on the internet and digital communication has made cybersecurity a more prominent issue in practice. Six in 10 respondents confirmed cybersecurity is relevant to their daily work. Nearly one in five experienced multiple cyberattacks. Results showed cyber criminals are attacking governmental organizations (64.0%) and public companies (62.3%) more frequently.

Cyberattacks can take different formats, and the two most common ones are hacking websites and/or social media accounts (39.0%) and leaking sensitive information (37.5%). When engaging communication strategies in fighting cyber criminality, professionals actively worked on building resilience by educating their fellow employees (45.7%), developing cybersecurity guidelines (40.1%), and implementing cybersecurity technologies (42.7%).

Nearly half (49.5%) of surveyed women recognized the impact of the glass ceiling on their leadership advancement.

Almost seven out of 10 professionals (65.5%) observed an improvement in gender equality in their country. However, only half of them (45.6%) believed enough efforts have been made to advance gender equality. Specifically, disagreement arises when comparing perceptions by men (58.1%) and women (34.3%). Consistently, professionals acknowledged the issue of glass ceiling affecting women’s leadership advancement at all three levels: the communication profession (59.0%), the communication department and agency (46.0%), and the individual female practitioners (48.4%). In addition, public companies (62.8%) and nonprofits (63.9%) are criticized for their passive action to advance gender equality.

Approximately half of surveyed women stated they are personally affected by the glass ceiling in leadership advancement (49.5%). Reasons contributing to the glass ceiling problem are multifaceted, and the top two are linked to organizational barriers: lack of flexibility for family obligations (66.2%) and nontransparent, informal promotion policies (65.2%).

While building and maintaining trust remains as the top strategic issue, tackling DEI presents a pressing need for the communication profession.

When ranking the top strategic issues between now and 2023, professionals’ top-3 choices are:

  1. Building and maintaining trust (34.5%),
  2. Exploring new means of content creation and distribution (34.4%), and
  3. Tackling issues related to DEI (34.1%).

As for who is most capable of solving DEI issues, just more than half of respondents believed that organizational leaders carry the biggest responsibility (51.1%). However, only 39.9% of top communication leaders agreed with this selection. Instead, they shift such responsibility to the communication professionals themselves (42.4%).

More than half of communicators of all ages noted a “much or great need” to develop competencies.

The year 2020 taught communicators a variety of lessons including the value of maintaining a flexible skillset. More than half of communicators of all ages noted a “much or great need” to develop competencies. However, about 10% of the youngest respondents (29 years and younger) said there is no or little need for such development.

When assessing the importance and the personal qualification of six core competencies (data, technology, management, business, self-reflection and communication), large gaps were confirmed in data (-15.7%), technology (-12.4%) and management (-10.4%). Professionals working in governmental organizations and nonprofits rated their business, technology and data competencies significantly lower, as did female professionals.

Reber, Bryan
In addition to his roles at Grady College, Bryan Reber also serves as the research chair of The Plank Center.

“The NACM provides a substantive look at the issues that affect public relations leaders across the continent,” said Reber, chair of the Grady’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations. “Communication became a freshly appreciated discipline in board rooms as the need for internal and external communication expertise exploded. We learned that senior management is very involved in day-to-day tactics during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. We learned that gender-based pay equity still has to be addressed. And we learned that cybersecurity is a communication issue, not just an IT headache. The survey shines a light on so many areas of importance in our practice.”

To download and read the NACM 2020-2021 full report, please visit The Plank Center’s website.

About North American Communication Monitor 2020-2021

The North American Communication Monitor (NACM) is a biennial study organized and sponsored by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. The NACM is part of the Global Communication Monitor series. As the largest regular global study in the field of public relations and strategic communication, the Global Communication Monitor series aims at stimulating and promoting the knowledge and practice of strategic communication and communication management globally. The series covers more than 80 countries with similar surveys conducted in Asia-Pacific, Europe and Latin America.

The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is the leading international resource working to support students, educators and practitioners who are passionate about the public relations profession by developing and recognizing outstanding diverse public relations leaders, role models and mentors. Founded in 2005, the Center is named in honor of Betsy Plank, the “First Lady” of PR.

For more information about the Global Communication Monitor series, please visit the Global Commuication Monitor website.

New crisis communication book melds scholarly research with practitioner experience

The intersection of professional experience in crisis communication and theoretical research of the complexities of the topic are highlighted in a new book, “Advancing Crisis Communication Effectiveness.”

Edited by three Grady College professors, this book is an education in navigating the challenges that communicators face to protect public health and safety and shield organizational reputations from crisis-inflicted damage.

Crisis communication quote
One insight of many from the new book, “Advancing Crisis Communication Effectiveness.”

The book is edited by Yan Jin, Bryan Reber and Glen Nowak and includes submitted chapters from numerous academic and professional crisis communication thought leaders.  Among the subjects covered are crisis communication for corporations and non-profits, the benefits and pitfalls of using social media to cover natural disasters, dealing with misinformation, navigating media relations during governmental and public affairs crisis and examining situational theories helpful in dealing with crisis.

“This book is very translational because it brings together different theories and a diversity of voices,” said Jin, the UGA Athletic Association Professor in Grady College. “We are able to talk about theory and how it can help our practitioners better explain and predict outcomes, making their work more effective. The academics bring value of theory-based insights and the practitioners bring fresh, current challenges to help scholars identify the next research frontiers.”

One topic covered in the book that is especially relevant today is the discussion of crisis and healthcare. Nowak, the director of the Grady Center for Health and Risk Communication, says health communications is an ever-evolving area as the recent COVID-19 outbreak has proven.

“A lot of the assumptions that we have in the health communications space need to be revisited because it’s hard to come up with a simple formula for how to respond,” Nowak said. “Every single day something happens that you didn’t anticipate. As this book illustrates, we need a lot more sophistication both among practitioners and among academics who are trying to do research that will help practitioners.”

The intersection of an academic approach together with a practical approach by professional communicators is unique and made possible through the collaboration of the Crisis Communication Think Tank. The CCTT is a group of invited scholars and practitioners who are experts on the subject of crisis communication. The group builds domestic and international collaborations to advance crisis communication science and practice on emerging topics.


“This book is one more example of how UGA is at the leading edge of the conversation around crisis communication and research,” added Bryan Reber, the C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership. “Between the CCTT and the Center for Health and Risk Communication, we are positioned really well to facilitate these discussions and collaborations.”  

The subjects covered in the book are based on discussions of the group and are authored by several CCTT members including scholars from University of Maryland, University of North Carolina and the University of Amsterdam along with professionals from UPS, and Imagem Corporativa (Brazil), as well as CCTT-affiliated partners such as the Museum of Public Relations, among others. Several additional Grady College faculty and alumni also collaborated on chapters for the book.

Grady College alumnus Dick Yarbrough (ABJ ’59) wrote the forward to the book and discussed how important it is for communicators to be involved with strategic conversation and the decision-making process. Yarbrough was the managing director of communications and government relations for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and gained a wealth of crisis communication experience with the Centennial Olympic Park Bombing.

“This book is a perfect blend of the expertise of highly-qualified academicians and the experiences of communications professionals who have dealt successfully with a variety of crises in their own organizations,” Yarbrough said. “I am encouraged that it will be available to current and future generations of communicators.”

 

Public Relations Leaders Earn a “C+” in The Plank Center’s Report Card 2019

Bryan Reber and Juan Meng of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations were among a team of researchers evaluating perceptions about public relations leadership as part of The Plank Center’s Report Card 2019.

The 2019 report was released the end of September and reflects little change in public relations leadership from studies in 2015 and 2017. PR leaders received an overall grade of “C+” in 2019, similar to previous studies, though down a bit overall in the last five years.

“The impression about top communication leaders’ performance hasn’t changed nor improved much in the professional communication community, based on results from our three Report Cards,” said Meng, co-investigator and associate professor at Grady College. “Such consistent but not-so-promising gaps present persuasive evidence that merits serious attention. Improving top communication leaders’ performance shall be a priority. More critically, such changes and actions shall be well communicated to and received by employees in order to close the gaps.”

The Report Card 2019 had responses from 828 PR leaders and professionals nationwide, who evaluated five fundamental areas of leadership linked to outcomes in our field—organizational culture, quality of leadership performance, trust in the organization, work engagement and job satisfaction. While grades overall were little changed from 2017, job engagement, trust and job satisfaction dropped a bit. Even more concerning, previously reported gaps in evaluations grew more:

  • Differences between men’s (45.8%) and women’s (54.2%) perceptions of the organizational culture and the quality of leadership performance deepened. Similar to Report Card 2017, gaps between top leaders’ (35.1%) and others’ (64.9%) perceptions of all five evaluated areas remained wide.
  • Women in public relations remained less engaged, less satisfied with their jobs, less confident in their work cultures, less trusting of their organizations and more critical of top leaders compared to men.
  • Previous concerns of both men and women about two-way communication, shared decision-making, diversity and culture were again present.

The consistently average grades, and the sharp and growing differences among surveyed professionals noted above, beg the question of whether improving leadership in the field is a priority in the profession. Numerous blogs, articles and research studies suggest it is important and needed. However, as Bill Heyman, CEO and president of Heyman Associates, and a co-sponsor of the study, reflected, “Talking about needed changes and improvements in leadership won’t accomplish the change. We need more leaders who live and model the changes.”

Report Card on PR Leaders 2019 2017 2015
Leadership performance A-/C+ A-/C+ A-/C+
Job engagement B- B- B+
Trust in organization C+ C+ C+
Job satisfaction C+ C+ B
Culture of organization C+ C+ B-
Overall C+ C+ B-

 

 

 

 

 

“Organizational culture is driven by leadership,” said Bryan H. Reber, the C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership at Grady College and research director at The Plank Center. “It’s rather disheartening that organizational culture remains only ‘average’ and that women give ‘shared decision-making’ such a poor score. Public relations leaders apparently need to back up verbal support of inclusive cultures with more action.”

The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is located at the University of Alabama and is an international resource working to support students, educators and professionals.

To download the complete report, please visit the Report Card on The Plank Center’s website.