Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #1: A Real-World Approach to Academic Crisis Communication Training

June 1, 2015
Crisis Communication

A simple social media complaint from a dissatisfied customer—or worse, a breaking news story—can require organizations to move from regular daily operations to full crisis response mode. What may have seemed like an isolated housekeeping issue resulted in three deaths, 10 hospitalizations, a recall of all products on the market, and the indefinite halting of operations for Blue Bell Creameries as a result of a recent listeria outbreak. A rise in the number and magnitude of crises in recent years has led to an increased need for organizational leaders and public relations practitioners to obtain skills in crisis communication. The importance of effectively communicating with the public during these crises has resulted in the incorporation of crisis communication courses in a variety of academic programs. There is arguably no time better than the present for crisis communication educators to review and enrich their methods for teaching this important subject.

In a college/university setting, crisis communication is typically taught using hypothetical scenarios and case studies. While the information presented in these courses is invaluable, training in practical, in-the-trenches skills is not common practice in academic programs. As a result, public relations researchers and practitioners have long argued that what is written in textbooks and what unfolds in real life practice are vastly different. This lack of real-world preparation can be costly during an actual crisis situation.

As a crisis communication professor, it is my goal to provide students with academic training that mirrors, as closely as possible, actual situations that students will experience in their professional careers. As a result, I taught my crisis communication course using a semester-long (five-month) assignment, where students engaged in service-learning—or active participation in community service—to create a crisis management plan for a non-profit organization in the community. The outcome of this project provided students with real-world training in researching the organization and its public reputation, conducting an assessment of risks that could become crises for the organization (such as a pattern of complaints by upset customers), identifying ways to prevent identified risks from becoming crises, preparing tabletop exercises, and writing scripts for responding to the public. Their collaboration with the partnering organization resulted in the presentation of a 177-page team-written crisis management plan that the organization’s leadership continues to use for employee training and crisis response.

At the end of the semester, students and representatives from the partnering organization were invited to provide anonymous feedback about their experience with the service-learning crisis management plan assignment. The results of their feedback illustrate both students and partnering organizations benefit from such collaboration.

Students, in particular, noticed an explicit connection between course content and its application to the real world. They indicated the assignment had enhanced their learning experience by allowing them to apply what they had learned in the class, and in other university coursework, to a real situation. Students also described feeling a determination to follow through with the project and overcome personal obstacles, such as improving their writing skills. They explained being responsible for a real organization’s crisis management efforts was a major factor in their motivation to learn, specifically increasing their sense of pride and responsibility.

Additionally, students described the assignment as increasing their confidence in being able to prepare for and respond to crises in their professional lives, and several participants directly identified the assignment as being a defining factor in choosing to enter the field of public relations. The students also described how the assignment helped them become more effective leaders by helping them appreciate the amount of work that can be accomplished together as a team. Finally, students described coming to a realization that the assignment was mutually beneficial to themselves and the partnering organization, providing a unique way for busy students to give back to their community.

The organization also expressed satisfaction with the benefits it received from working with the students. The chief executive officer (CEO) of the partnering organization specifically stated that he was grateful for the ability to obtain an effective crisis management plan without having to spend “top dollar” hiring a public relations firm. The organization’s chief operating officer (COO) also mentioned that the crisis management plan the students created was more “robust” than those that companies pay top dollar to create. Both the CEO and COO commented on their satisfaction with the quality of the completed crisis management plan and expressed the intent to adopt it within their organization.

In summary, training future crisis managers using approaches that realistically simulate what they will face in their profession is an important academic shift. In a business world that has become increasingly vulnerable to crises, the experience will greatly enhance their effectiveness. The benefits expressed by students and representatives of the partnering organization support the need for educators to use service-learning to bridge the divide between academic concepts and real-world situations when teaching crisis communication courses. Both students and partnering organizations benefit from their involvement in such collaborations, moving the crisis management plan assignment from a hypothetical scenario-based exercise to a meaningful immersion into real-world crisis management.

About the author (s)

Michelle M. Maresh-Fuehrer

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Assistant Professor