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.

University of Georgia Crisis Communications Think Tank Hosts International Virtual Event

The University of Georgia (UGA) Crisis Communication Think Tank (CCTT), part of the UGA Crisis Communication Coalition (CCC), hosted its third annual gathering on Zoom for members and invited guests on Thursday, April 15 and Friday, April 16. The session on April 15 focused on international perspectives of crisis communication. The session on April 16 highlighted the increasing role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the crisis communication field. Each day’s session lasted an hour and a half.

Graphic provided by CCTT.

The CCTT usually hosts its annual event throughout one day and in person at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Because of concerns for public health regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was hosted virtually this year. The virtual format of the event created a unique opportunity, allowing for more international members and invited guests to participate and engage in live discussion across time zones.

“We decided to make the ‘limitation’ of an online event into a virtue by asking international experts to share and explore the similarities and differences in crisis communication problems and practices around the globe,” said Dr. Bryan H. Reber, C. Richard Yarbrough Professor of Crisis Communication Leadership at UGA and co-founder of the CCTT.

Four scholars and four practitioners recorded discussions about international perspectives of crisis communication in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. These recorded conversations were shared with virtual event attendees the week prior to the think tank so they could watch the content and come prepared to discuss during the live sessions. For the second day, attendees were sent three presentations from CCTT members and affiliates regarding the growth of AI in the industry.

During live discussion of the pre-recorded international content, all eight of the panelists engaged in rich conversation with other think tank attendees. The topics discussed included corporate social responsibility (CSR), preparation of communities for crisis and “cancel culture” in each region. The second day’s focus on AI included discussion surrounding virtual beings, machine learning and deep fakes. Attendees joined the conversation to note how their organizations have already used AI and how they plan to in the future.

Graphic provided by CCTT.

The CCTT will host its annual event next year on Thursday, April 14, 2022. The pre-recorded discussions from this year’s event can be viewed on this CCTT YouTube playlist.

The international perspectives panelists included Amiso George (Texas Christian University), Osenkor Gogo (Newmont Ghana, Ghana), Augustine Pang (Singapore Management University, Singapore), Richard Tsang (Strategic Public Relations Group Limited, Hong Kong), Tobias Mueller (Klenk & Hoursch AG, Germany), Toni van der Meer (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands), Paula Casari Cundari (Universidade Feevale, Brazil) and Ciro Dias dos Reis (Imagem Corporativa, Brazil). The AI panelists included Tim Coombs (Texas A&M University), John Rich (Futurist) and Vikram Sharma (Crisp).

UGA hosts Second Annual Crisis Communication Think Tank

The University of Georgia’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication held its second annual Crisis Communication Think Tank event on April 18, 2019. This year’s CCTT theme was “sticky crisis,” with a focus on how to advance crisis communication effectiveness in managing challenging and complex crisis issues. The CCTT convened 23 leading crisis communication scholars and executives to discuss to discuss trends and share insights on these issues, integrating research and practice.

The 2019 CCTT program was hosted by Dr. Bryan Reber, Dr. Yan Jin and Dr. Glen Nowak. The day-long event comprised of two invited speakers, as well as two crisis scholar and practitioner panels.

Both student engagement and CCTT membership has grown since the inaugural event in 2018. The growth is due in part by the work of the Crisis Communication Coalition and CCTT student interns. In conjunction with Reber, Jin and CCC faculty advisor Tom Cullen, public relations seniors Anna Leigh Herndon, of the CCC, and Maria Stagliano of the CCTT, worked throughout the year to promote and plan this year’s event.

“Our student interns, faculty, staff and CCTT members worked together to bring our event to the next level,” said Jin. “Seeing the growing impact of our event in just one year has made us so proud to be a part of the CCTT and Grady College.”

CCTT membership is by invitation only. A small group of leading crisis scholars and practitioners, based on their crisis research and/or communication management leadership in crisis practice, are invited to join the think tank as members or participate as guests in the annual CCTT event.

 
 

About

The Crisis Communication Think Tank (CCTT) is a yearly event, sponsored by the C. Richard Yarbrough Professorship in Crisis Communication Leadership, the Center for Health and Risk Communication, the Georgia Athletic Association Professorship in Grady College, and the Hearst Visiting Professionals Fund at the University of Georgia. The CCTT attendees are invited members of a crisis communication coalition, selected as thought leaders in the field. The CCTT aims to build collaborations among researchers, practitioners, and educators, in and outside the U.S., in advancing crisis communication science and practice through dialogue on emerging topics and co-creation of evidence-based advice for next-generation crisis research and practice.