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).

University of Georgia Crisis Communication Think Tank hosts webinar with industry experts

The University of Georgia (UGA) Crisis Communication Think Tank (CCTT), part of the UGA Crisis Communication Coalition (CCC), and the Museum of Public Relations in New York City jointly hosted the “Sticky Crisis: Health Communication in a Crisis” webinar on Tuesday, February 23. Dr. Glen Nowak, Michael Greenwell and Karen White were panelists with Dr. LaShonda Eaddy moderating.

By joining the views of practitioners and scholars, the panel explored the unprecedented difficulties the COVID-19 pandemic brought forth on the communication industry. The panelists discussed the importance of internal communication in times of crisis, the urgency for companies to take a stand on social justice issues, the challenges of managing misinformation, and the future implications the pandemic has on health communications.

“This webinar showed– through case histories, analysis and observations by healthcare experts– is that good communication is far more than just an ancillary tactic in public health,” said Shelley Spector, Founder and Director of the Museum of Public Relations. “Indeed, what the participants here proved, was that a thoughtful communications plan is just as important, if not more so, than timely testing and vaccines.”

Dr. Nowak is the Director of Center for Health & Risk Communication and Professor at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Greenwell is the Vice President and CDC Account Executive at ICF, a global consulting and technology services provider based in Fairfax, Va. White is the Executive Director of Corporate Affairs at Amgen Inc., an American multinational biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Los Angeles. Dr. Eaddy is an assistant professor of public relations and strategic communication in the Corporate Communication and Public Affairs division at Southern Methodist University.

The panelists called for an updated outlook on crisis research. They explained the need for practitioners and scholars to work more closely together to improve public relations theories and advice – especially as it relates to health crises.

“Textbooks too often make [crisis response] seem like a recipe,” said Dr. Nowak. In response, White said, “When I was a student at the Grady College, we learned the theory, then the ‘recipe’. But as any good cook knows, there’s always adjustments that can be made to recipes and knowing how to do so very quickly is key. [Never having the same day twice] is one of the things I love about my career.”

The webinar can be viewed above and previous programs can be viewed on Grady College’s YouTube channel here.

The CCTT plans to hold another webinar March 23 at 6:00 pm ET for undergraduate and graduate students to learn more about pursuing a career in crisis communications. The career panel will feature Michael Gray (GE and Grady Society Alumni Board), Leah Seay (Amazon), Maria Stagliano (LEVICK) and Samantha Meyer (Grady Career Center). Register here for the March 23 webinar.


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.”


Crisis Communication Think Tank Webinar with industry experts

The University of Georgia Crisis Communication Think Tank, part of the UGA Crisis Communication Coalition (CCC), joined the Museum of Public Relations in New York City jointly to host a webinar panel, “Sticky Crises and Industry Trends,” on Thursday, Nov. 19. Timothy Coombs, Richard Levick and Carl Turner were panelists with Taylor Voges as moderator.

Sticky crises are more complex and challenging than the typical crises that take a less reactive and more proactive approach to handle, according to the panelists. The practitioners and scholars discussed issues, such as Black Lives Matter and the MeToo movement, and how organizations are handling these crises. They examined the current polarization of American society and how sticky crises have shaped the media – especially in the past four years.

“It’s not a technology revolution; it’s an information revolution,” said Levick. “I’m not sure if everything is sticky, but everything is life and death.”

Coombs is the Abell professor in liberal arts in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University and a leading crisis communication scholar. Levick is chairman and CEO of Levick, a public relations and crisis communications firm in Washington, D.C. Turner is chief brand strategy officer at Klick Health, the world’s largest independent health marketing agency. Voges is a second-year doctoral student in UGA’s Grady College.

Students made up a large portion of the attendees and showed their interest in crisis communication.

“I thought that the webinar was intriguing and diverse. All those presenting brought different ideas and viewpoints to the table that I had not thought of. I also enjoyed that they didn’t shy away from sensitive subjects,” said Douglas Matthews, a fourth-year advertising major.

Bryan Reber, the C. Richard Yarbrough Professor of Crisis Communication Leadership and coordinator of the Crisis Communication Coalition, was one of the program planners.  “Tim, Richard, and Carl explored important issues facing organizations today in this crisis prone era.  They were thoughtful without being afraid to explore provocative subjects,” Reber said.  “This was a wonderful first event for us to co-sponsor with the Museum of Public Relations.  We are planning future collaborations.”

Shelley Spector, Founder and Director of the Museum of Public Relations and President of Spector Communications, helped plan this program with the Grady College. “It was an honor for the Museum of Public Relations to work with this all-star team of crisis management experts,” said Spector, “The panelists examined crisis communications from both the theoretical and practical aspects, and effectively introduced to the PR world the idea of the ‘sticky crises.’ There was a tremendously positive response to this webinar, and I hope we can produce the next one early in the New Year, to reflect back on 2020, the year with history’s ‘stickiest’ crises.”

The CCTT plans to hold another webinar jointly hosted with the Museum of Public Relations on February 26, 2021 at 6:00 pm EST. The topic will be “Sticky Crises and Health & Risk Communication.”  A video recording of “Sticky Crises and Industry Trends” is available to watch here.

Four students selected as Yarbrough-Grady Fellows for Fall 2020

The University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication has named the Yarbrough-Grady Fellows for fall 2020: Laura Burr, Sophia Haynes, Sarah McRae and Grant Mitchell.

The Yarbrough-Grady Fellowship is a position that offers four students distinct opportunities to work with Grady College throughout each academic year.

Burr and McRae work with the Crisis Communication Coalition (CCC), the home for research on crisis communication leadership and practice in Grady

Burr (R) and McRae (L), interns for the Crisis Communication Coalition, enjoy a socially distanced coffee together as they work during fall semester.

College. Burr serves as a social media coordinator and promotes content for the CCC, while McRae coordinates the annual Crisis Communication Think Tank in spring 2021, CCC webinars and writing for online blog posts.

Haynes and Mitchell support Grady College’s external relations team to help strategize public relations initiatives and create content for the college’s website and social media channels. Haynes focuses on graphics production and crafts visual content, while Mitchell focuses on public relations and writes articles and news releases.

The Yarbrough-Grady Fellowship is funded by Dick Yarbrough (ABJ ‘59), an alumnus of Grady College who has funded Grady student success for many years. In addition to the fellowship, the C. Richard Yarbrough Student Support Fund has provided stipends to hundreds of Grady students for more than a decade.

Burr, Haynes, McRae and Mitchell have all found success at UGA with diverse experiences in academics, leadership and professional roles.

Burr, from Bishop, Georgia, is a fourth-year student majoring in public relations with minors in Spanish and fashion merchandising. Last year, Burr served as the editor in chief of the UGA Pandora Yearbook. She spent the summer as an internal and executive communication intern with Barings. Burr plans to begin her career at a public relations agency following her graduation in May 2021.

Haynes, from Johns Creek, Georgia, is a third-year student studying journalism and is an intended graphic design major. She serves as a photojournalist and designer for The Red & Black and is a former vice president of the Aperture Club. Haynes also conducts freelance design and photography in her spare time. As her graduation in May 2022 nears, Haynes hopes to bring her love for design, photography and writing together into a career.

McRae, from Peachtree Corners, Georgia, is a fourth-year student majoring in public relations and global health. She works as a brand marketing intern for Kitty and Vibe, a swimwear company in New York City, and as a copywriter for Body Awareness Studio, a Pilates studio in Atlanta. McRae wants to work in a creative industry, such as food, art or fashion, after she graduates in May 2021.

Mitchell, from Milton, Georgia, is a fourth-year student studying public relations with a certificate in new media and minors in political science and leadership in student affairs. He is the executive director of the UGA Student Government Association’s First-Year Programs and a director for the campus nonprofit Shop with a Bulldawg. He worked this past summer as a public relations intern at See.Spark.Go and as the summer Yarbrough-Grady Fellow. Mitchell hopes to pursue a career where authentic and inclusive communication can uplift all people.

“I am honored to be able to fund fellowships at Grady College at the University of Georgia,” said Yarbrough. “I can never repay my alma mater for what it has meant to me.  I am so impressed with the quality of the students there today and hope that perhaps the fellowship will give the recipients a learning opportunity they might not have been able to receive otherwise.  The only thing I ask in return is that when they are able that they give back to the next generation that will succeed them.”

The Yarbrough-Grady Fellows are excited to grow their skills for future careers and help propel Grady College to new heights.

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.



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.