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.

#GradyGrit: Meet Maria Stagliano

Editor’s Note: #GradyGrit is a new series of profiles of Grady College students who show determination, leadership and outreach to the community. Search “#GradyGrit” on the Grady College website for additional profiles.

Why did you choose Grady?

I chose Grady because I knew it would prepare me with the skills I needed to be a strategic communicator. Grady has been so much more than a major for me; it is my family. I love hanging out in the journalism building, talking to other students and professors, and learning more about the other majors. Grady has given me friends, mentors and invaluable network connections!

How has Grady influenced your time at UGA?

One thing I did not expect was to end up doing the PAC Certificate. I went into Grady taking classes for fun–one of which being Professor Watson’s intro class. That class opened my eyes to another way of communicating your message, and now, I am getting a certificate in Public Affairs Communications. It was through those classes with Watson that I also found my love for D.C. It is now my plan to move there after graduation (if I get a job).

As a Public Affairs Communications program fellow, Maria helps host events and get more students involved.

Who has been your favorite instructor/class?

My favorite class at UGA was Professor Watson’s Advanced Public Affairs Communications class. His class taught me so much about strategic thinking and message development. I was surrounded by peers with a range of different political ideologies and different ways of thinking. The best part of the class is the work we produced throughout the semester. By the end, I had an entire campaign plan!

What is your most memorable Grady experience?

AdPR Connection will always hold a special place in my heart. I transferred to UGA in the summer of 2017 and so I did not have a community yet. Before I was even accepted into Grady, I decided to join a committee for AdPR Connection 2017. I remember the day of the event, it all felt so surreal. I knew so many people and professors already and felt like I had built a small community in a short amount of time. AdPR Connection was the first time I felt like Grady was my home. This year, I got to be Co-Director for the event and that was a true high for me! I hope someone else got to feel the togetherness and excitement that I felt my first time at the event.

Knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself before you began taking Grady classes?

Get to know your professors. Grady is one giant network of amazingly talented people–all with different perspectives. If you take the time to make connections, even just one, it will go a long way. Grady is a family, and we all want to help each other out. Eventually, we will all be in the workforce, and you never know who you might run into or work with in the future. Maintaining good connections, finding a mentor, and learning from your peers will make you so much happier and more successful during your time at Grady.

What is your dream job?

My dream job is to do crisis communications within a D.C. firm. 

Maria Stagliano shows Grady pride by welcoming Julia Spreng and other students on Grady New Admit Day.

If you could travel anywhere in the world where would it be?

I have always wanted to go to Vancouver!

What is the best comfort food?

Mmmmm lasagna, but I’m biased because I’m Italian.

Winter break highlight?

New Year’s Eve with one of my best friends who I met in Grady!

What is one thing not many people may not know about you?

I am an avid bird watcher so I go on bird identification walks and I bake a lot of delicious gluten-free desserts in my spare time. I also spent my first year of college at a school in Montreal, Quebec studying theatre design. That’s another thing a lot of people don’t know–I used to be a theatre design major for 2 years. That gives me a unique perspective.