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.

New book ‘Social Media and Crisis Communication’ (2nd edition) bridges gap between theory and practice

Yan Jin, the Georgia Athletic Association Professor and a professor of public relations at Grady College, has released a second edition of her book “Social Media and Crisis Communication.”

Co-edited by Lucinda Austin, an associate professor and the Ph.D. program director at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the book integrates theory, research and application to orient readers to the latest thinking about the role of social media in the field. 

“This book offers the most updated research insights in the field of social media and crisis communication,” explained Jin. 

 It features chapters written by dozens of researchers and professionals from around the world, including many Grady College faculty members, graduate students and alumni. 

“For this edition, we have a really strong UGA presence,” said Jin. 

Jonathan Peters, an associate professor of journalism, Bryan Reber, the C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership and Joseph Watson, Jr.,  the Carolyn Caudell Tieger Professor of Public Affairs Communications, Advertising and Public Relations, all contributed to the book. So did Grady graduate students Marilyn Broggi, W. Scott Guthrie, Xuerong Lu and Taylor Voges and alumni LaShonda Eaddy (PhD ’17), Yen-I Lee (PhD ’17) and Logan White (MA ’21). 

The mission of the book, which Jin describes as one of a kind, is to bridge the gap between theory and practice. The book takes a deep look at specific crisis arenas, including health, corporate, nonprofit, religious, political and disaster, as well as emerging social media platforms and newer technology. It provides a fresh view of the role of visual communication in social media and a more global review of social media and crisis communication literature. 

“We want to connect research and practice,” said Jin. “You learn theory and insights, but also there are tangible cases and ongoing dialogues from practitioners shining light on what is important for the industry.” 

With an emphasis on ethics and global perspective, a brief overview of social media research in crisis communication and case studies for each area of application, the lessons in the book, Jin explained, are useful for scholars, advanced students and practitioners who wish to stay on the edge of research. It will appeal to those who are in public relations, strategic communications, government and NGO communications, corporate communications and emergency and disaster response, among others. 

The first edition of “Social Media and Crisis Communication” was published in 2017. Austin served as the lead editor of the first edition, while Jin co-edited the book. 

UGA and UMD researchers partner to explore strategies for combatting misinformation during health crises

Yan Jin and Brooke Fisher Liu lead FDA sponsored research to gather evidence to guide future messaging.

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD) and the University of Georgia (UGA) are collaborating with researchers at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) Office of Communications to develop and test messaging strategies that can help overcome misinformation that arises during public health emergencies.

Brooke Fisher Liu, professor in UMD’s Department of Communication, and Yan Jin, professor of public relations and Georgia Athletic Association Professor at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, will develop and test message strategies concerning vital health information that can help keep people safe.

“Past research found a clear link between COVID-19 misinformation exposure and vaccine hesitancy,” said Liu, the project’s principal investigator. “Research also connects misinformation exposure to lower compliance with government health and safety guidance. In short, misinformation is just as great of a threat to public health as the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, but our knowledge is limited on how to combat misinformation.”

Through two large-scale experiments on how messages containing misinformation and various types of responses are interpreted by U.S. adults, the researchers will be among the first to explore how public health misinformation can be corrected through strategic risk communication and what methods work best in thwarting misinformation.

“This project exemplifies the importance and promising future for more collaborative risk and crisis communication research across universities and with the government to provide theory-driven, evidenced-based insights to protect public health and safety,” said Jin, the project’s co-principal investigator.

The FDA is investing nearly $225,000 to fund the three-year project, which began in October 2021. The research team will  recommend best practices for how public health agencies can combat health misinformation for the COVID-19 pandemic and future threats.

The team defines misinformation as a claim of fact that is false due to a lack of scientific evidence or conflicting scientific evidence. The researchers will conduct online experiments gathering information on how adults respond to medical and health misinformation. The research team will also provide a targeted deep-dive analysis of previous research to identify best communication practices that promote safety during public health crises.

Liu and Jin are two of the leading risk and crisis communication scholars in the world. Their collaborative work dates back to 2001, when they both studied in the graduate program at the Missouri School of Journalism. They are joined by Tori McDermott, graduate research assistant from the UMD, and Xuerong Lu, graduate research assistant from the UGA.

“It is a great opportunity for me, as a young scholar in crisis communication, to collaborate with Dr. Liu and Dr. Jin to significantly advance research and practice in misinformation management,” said Lu.

The research findings will provide an opportunity to address real-time challenges, and the lessons learned from them, to guide future leadership decisions in health communication. The mission behind this research is to equip authorities with communication to respond to misinformation in a way that protects public health and safety.

“As an emerging scholar, I am so grateful to work on a project of this magnitude not only to help mitigate the negative effects of infodemics, but also to learn from Dr. Liu and Dr. Jin how scholarship can inform and change practice and policy to better society,” said McDermott.

 

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.”

 

When companies are attacked by misinformation, employees may be their best defense

For companies facing a crisis, misinformation—especially on social media—can abound. These days, it’s not enough for a company to simply deny a claim. A team of researchers from the University of Georgia, in collaboration with scholars in the University of Amsterdam and Washington State University, found two ways to combat inaccurate statements and convince a skeptical public. It starts by addressing the misinformation head on and explaining why it is false. And companies can be bolstered by employees publicly backing their employer.

The study, “The Effects of Corrective Communication and Employee Backup on the Effectiveness of Fighting Crisis Misinformation” was led by Yan Jin, the UGA Athletic Association Professor in Grady College and associate director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“Employees’ authentic and supportive words worked really well to significantly strengthen their company’s argument and credibility in debunking misinformation and correcting misperception about a crisis situation,” Jin said, summarizing the research. “To have this, the company has to have healthy, strong relationships with their employees. Strong organization-employee relationships can serve as an effective cushion for a crisis-stricken company to crash land more safely and bounce back more quickly.”

The study examined a fictional scenario where a pet food company was accused of selling contaminated food that made pets sick, and the product was recalled. While there was evidence that the company was not responsible for the contamination, there were social media posts that accused the company of negligence.

Study participants who own pets were presented with the scenario of the pet food recall and the accusations of negligence. They were then shown a variety of responses. From the company, they were shown two types of rebuttals: one that was a simple rebuttal of the claim and a second that offered a rebuttal plus an explanation of why the information was incorrect.

Then approximately half of the study participants were further presented with a response made by employees of the fictitious company, voicing support of the company’s rebuttals, and the other half of the study participants were not presented with any employee response. The study found that the employee statement on their personal social media channels in support of the company significantly strengthened the company’s argument and credibility in combatting the false accusation spread on social media.

The most effective step in refuting inaccurate claims according to the research is for the company to explain that the claims are false and why. More elaboration about why the claims are wrong led to increased credibility for the company through stronger messages and reduced reputation damage for the company.

Jin explains that this research is important in communication theory building and practice because crisis misinformation leads to crisis misperception. This study is one of the first communication research studies to define crisis misinformation as incorrect information about any part of the situation or the organization, including disinformation or misinformation, that is spread to harm the organization if not corrected or refuted. It is also one of the first public relations studies to examine the joint effects of debunking strategies and the presence of employee support on people’s crisis responses to crisis misinformation and a company’s corrective communication.

Co-authors on the study include Toni G.L.A. van der Meer of the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands; Yen-I Lee (Ph.D. ’19) of Washington State University and Xuerong Lu, a current Ph.D. student at Grady College.

The study was published in the Sept. 2020 issue of Public Relations Review.

Yan Jin named Kitty O. Locker Outstanding Researcher Award Recipient

Yan Jin, assistant department head of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations, has been named the recipient of the Kitty O. Locker Outstanding Researcher Award, presented at the annual international Association for Business Communication (ABC) conference October 25, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.

Jin is also associate director of the Center for Health & Risk Communication, Athletic Association Professor and professor of public relations at Grady College.

“As a public relations scholar, I am honored to receive this international research award in business communication,” said Jin. “It is a rewarding experience to contribute to such a richly interdisciplinary field and the collective commitment to advancing business communication research, education and practice.”

The award, sponsored by McGraw-Hill Education, honors and promotes excellence in business communication research.

“Dr. Jin is richly deserving of this international research award,” said Bryan Reber, department head of Advertising and Public Relations. “She is a leader in the field of public relations research generally and of crisis communication research specifically.  I feel fortunate to have her as a colleague and our students are fortunate to have her as a teacher, mentor and role model.”

Jin’s work serves as a framework for crisis and risk communication in a rapidly evolving media landscape and amidst emotionally charged conflict situations, ranging from organizational crises to disasters and public health emergencies. Jin’s research program in crisis communication, conflict management, and health risk communication contribute to the advancement of strategic communication theory and provide insights for public relations practice.

Jin has authored more than 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and over 20 book chapters.  She is the co-editor of the scholarly book Social Media and Crisis Communication. She has presented over 100 refereed papers at leading domestic and international conferences. Jin was named a Top 2 “Most Productive Scholar” in crisis communication research, according to a 2014 refereed article in International Journal of Strategic Communication. She was recently named a Top 27 “Most Cited Public Relations Author” according to a 2019 refereed article in Journal of Public Relations Research.

Jin teaches PR Research, PR Administration, PR Campaigns, AdPR Health, Crisis Communication and Mass Communication Theory. Her PR Campaigns class has collaborated with The Home Depot and eBay, while her AdPR Health class has worked on strategic health communication projects with Amgen and Publicis Health. She also served as faculty advisor for Grady PRSSA Chapter’s Bateman Team from 2016-2018.