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.

Countdown to the Olympic Games: Dick Yarbrough

This year officially marks 25 years since the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. These games have gone down in history for bringing international attention to the south and also for the tragic bombing in Centennial Park. 

University of Georgia broadcast journalism graduate Dick Yarbrough was instrumental in planning these Games and in the subsequent crisis management after the bombing. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Atlanta Games, Yarbrough has re-released his book And They Call Them Games detailing his experience. 

He served as managing director for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games from 1993-1996 where he was responsible for media relations and government relations. Yarbrough worked hard for three years alongside his team to ensure that the United States — and the state of Georgia — was prepared to host an event with as great a magnitude as the Olympics while the entire world was watching. 

While there were certainly stressful times that came along with the Games and the planning, Yarbrough says this time in his life was filled with fond memories.

A page from Yarbrough’s book.

“There were many. Seeing the Olympic Flame lit in the ancient city of Olympia. Having the opportunity to travel to many countries across the globe. Watching young Olympic athletes interacting with each other in the Olympic Village, not caring about their own countries’ political positions,” he remembered. “It was brought home to me that no matter how well an athlete fared in their competition, they were and always would be known as Olympians. I was also heartened by the enthusiasm of the five million who attended the Games and the 50,000 volunteers who showed everyone the true meaning of the term ‘Southern Hospitality.”

After the Games had ended, Yarbrough said he kept waiting for someone to write a book about everything that had happened, from the idea to host the Olympics in Atlanta to the planning stages to the fruits of the ACOG’s labors to the bombing. 

While working on the planning committee, Yarbrough recorded tapes of what had happened each day on the way to and from work. His habit of documenting everything had been reinforced by his career, which had him regularly visiting the White House, working with Congress, navigating “high-profile issues” and traveling the globe.

“After the Games, it became clear no one was planning to do a book on the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games,” Yarbrough said. “I asked if I would be interested in taking on the project. With 82 tapes as a resource, I produced the book in roughly six months.”

Yarbrough’s book is available for purchase on Amazon. (Graphic by Sam Perez)

His goal for his book is that readers would see the complexity surrounding the planning and staging of the Olympics. As for the name, And They Call Them Games, Yarbrough says it holds a very intentional meaning.

“It is easy to forget that the Olympics are a chance for nations to put aside their differences for even a brief period and allow people to engage in peaceful competition,” he explained. “With all the politics, money, controversy, special interests involved, the title was meant as a dig at those who forget that.”

Dick Yarbrough graduated from Grady College in 1959 and has gone on to accomplish many impressive achievements. Most recently, he has been named Georgia’s most widely-syndicated columnist with his name appearing regularly in over 40 newspapers across the state. 

“The Georgia Press Association has recognized my column with first place awards for humor, although a number of politicians would like a recount. They don’t find me that funny,” he said. 

Throughout his exciting — and impressive — career, Yarbrough has managed to stay connected to his alma mater. He served as president of UGA’s National Alumni Association, received the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1995, was recognized as an Outstanding Alumnus and Fellow of the College at Grady, has the C. Richard Yarbrough Laboratory named in his honor and established the C. Richard Yarbrough Chair in Crisis Communications Leadership

“I owe more to Grady than I have the words to express,” he said. “A chance internship led to a job in radio upon graduation. That led to an opportunity to join Southern Bell as a public relations manager. Twenty year later, I was a corporate vice president of BellSouth Corporation.  Having developed a reputation for crisis management, I was offered a once-in-lifetime opportunity to become a managing director of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.  And it all started with a dedicated faculty who saw some merit in a raw kid from East Point, Georgia.”

The revenue from Yarbrough’s column goes toward fellowships for students at Grady. He also funds the Crisis Communications professorship under the leadership of Dr. Bryan Reber, which he says is a “small effort to repay Grady for all it has meant to me and done for me.”

You can buy his book on Amazon here

Editor’s Note: This feature was written by Sam Perez, a 2021 Yarbrough Fellow in the Grady College Department of Communication. As part of the fellowship, she is helping market the re-release of Yarbrough’s book.

Two senior Grady students named Yarbrough-Grady Fellows for Spring 2020

Athens, Ga. — The University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication has named Allison Chenard, a 23-year-old student from Mooresville, North Carolina, and Mary Gardner “MG” Coffee, a 22-year-old student from Dallas, Texas the Yarbrough-Grady Fellows for Spring 2020.  

Chenard is a fourth-year student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in advertising and a minor in music. Throughout her time at the University of Georgia, she has been heavily involved in the club sailing team and has served as the race team captain and media chair for all four years. She discovered her love for communications through her work with the sailing team and extended her passion by running media for and representing 38 colleges and universities in the southeastern district of college sailing. She now works as the communications coordinator for over 250 schools across the country. 

Chenard plans to move to Rhode Island after graduation in May of 2020 to pursue media in the sailing industry. 

Also a current fourth-year student, Coffee is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public relations and a minor in sociology. Aligning more to her interests, Coffee is also enrolled in the Public Affairs Professional Certificate program on Grady College’s Public Affairs Communications side.  

She decided to attend the University of Georgia after hearing about Grady College’s competitive academic rigor, unique learning opportunities, and commitment to its student’s success. 

Coffee hopes to move to Washington, D.C. full time and work for a large public relations agency after graduating in May 2020. Ultimately, she aims to focus her career in public affairs communications. 

“Grady College has enhanced my education beyond what I thought was possible,” said Coffee. “The dedication displayed by Grady College’s professors, faculty members, and alumni to ensure the level of experience and mentorship students receive is unparalleled. It is an honor to work alongside those who made my education possible as the Yarbrough-Grady Public Relations Fellow.” 

The Yarbrough-Grady Fellowship is a semester long position that offers two student the opportunity to work with the Grady College external relations team to help strategize public relations initiatives and create content for the college’s website and social media channels.  

Focusing on graphics production in her fellowship, Chenard will exercise her design skills by creating materials for Grady College’s news releases, website, and social media platforms.  

Coffee, the PR fellow, will spend most of her time writing news releases, student profiles, and event write-ups. She will coordinate with a Chenard to produce visually cohesive and enticing stories that further Grady College’s purpose and mission.  

“The Yarbrough-Grady fellowship looks for top talent among our students and creates a win-win program,” said Sarah Freeman, Director of Communications at Grady College. “The students receive solid work experience and networking for an employer that they know a lot about, and the college benefits from a student perspective and from working with students who exemplify the strong education we offer.” 

Dick Yarbrough, an alumnus of Grady College, 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.  

“I am honored to be able to fund fellowships at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications 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.”     

Coffee is dedicated to continuing her education outside of the classroom and is motivated by her supportive friends and family.  

Chenard is inspired by her loving grandparents and is excited that her career is a happy marriage of her two late grandfathers’ passions: photography and sailing. 

“I had heard wonderful things about Mr. Yarbrough and all that he’s done for Grady College long before applying for this fellowship, and I’m ecstatic that I now have the opportunity to serve my school as a student and follow in his footsteps in a very small way,” said Chenard. “I really look forward to the day that I can give back to UGA in the same way Mr. Yarbrough has.” 

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Ashley Soriano named fall 2018 Yarbrough-Grady Fellow

Grady College has named Ashley Soriano from McDonough, Georgia, its fall 2018 Yarbrough-Grady  Fellow.  

The fellowship — which is funded through support from Grady College alumnus Dick Yarbrough (ABJ ’59) — is an experiential work program in which Grady College students work with the office of communications to produce materials for the college website, social media messages and public relations strategy for the semester.  

Soriano, a junior journalism major, has been involved in newspaper writing since high school. She served as Editor-in-Chief her senior year at Ola High School, Class of 2016, and joined The Red & Black, an independent student-run newspaper in Athens, Georgia, her freshman year of college.  

Soriano is the fall news editor at The Red & Black after being a staff writer for two years. She is also a member of the Georgia News Lab, an investigative reporting collaborative initiative with the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and WSB-TV. She also studied abroad in Dublin, Ireland, in the summer of 2017 to learn about travel writing journalism.  

One day, she plans to write for a major news outlet, such as The New York Times, the Washington Post or National Public Radio. She also plans to attend graduate school to earn her master’s degree in journalism and law school to earn her J.D. In addition to being a journalist and lawyer, she plans to be a journalism professor.  

“Grady College has offered me so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” Soriano said. “I’m in awe every day of how amazing this institution is.” 

Yarbrough has funded the fellowship since 2010, offering students a chance to get hands-on experience in the journalism and public relations field.  

“I can never repay my alma mater for what it has meant to me,” Yarbrough said. “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.” 

In return, Yarbrough asks the fellows to “give back to the next generation that will succeed them.”