I frequently draw on my three-and-a-half decades of experience as a practitioner (before I started teaching at Towson three years ago) to help my students understand careers in communication/PR. I think it is critically important in helping prepare students for success in their careers to help them understand the many and varied jobs they might have in communication/PR. This includes what will be expected of them on the job. Oftentimes, undergraduate students are not really aware of all that they might do with their degrees. Membership profiles from surveys by both IABC and PRSA show: about 40 percent of practitioners work in corporations of all types; about 27 percent work in PR firms, ad agencies, marketing communication firms, or as solo practitioners; about 14 percent work for associations, foundations, or educational institutions; eight percent in health care; six percent in government; and five percent in charitable, social welfare, or religious organizations.
The recent tragedy at Virginia Tech reminds us to consider what certain communication/PR jobs require in terms of job-related knowledge and skills. For communication/PR directors at colleges or universities or other educational institutions, there are so many lessons that it is difficult to decide where to start. However, one guideline will govern this discussion; we will be positive. We are not looking to find fault or to cast blame, but to treat this as a learning opportunity. There is enough blaming and second-guessing going on out there now. Instead, let’s focus on communication/PR jobs in times of crisis, share our collective knowledge, and try to learn something.
There are many positions out there for communication/PR directors at colleges and universities and all types of educational institutions. For example, in addition to colleges and universities, city public school systems, school districts, etc., often have communication/PR departments. Given the horrific events of last week at Virginia Tech, what must an effective college or university or educational institution communication/PR director be able to do? The following things come quickly to mind:
- Be proficient in crisis communication planning and management. Educational institutions, just like other entities, must have crisis communication plans in place. Given the terrible events at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, this is a clear priority. Effective crisis communication planning should begin with assessing the organization’s vulnerabilities and the institution’s ability to handle them. While the tragedies at Columbine and Virginia Tech are extreme examples, communication/PR practitioners must anticipate all types of events in order to be prepared and handle them effectively if the time comes. Is there a crisis communication management team in place? Are spokespersons trained and ready to deal with the media? Is the president, or whatever the highest ranking executive is called, ready to meet the media? Is the communication/PR department trained, practiced, and ready to support him or her in the effort?
- Handling communication effectively during and after the crisis. How will communication be managed and/or facilitated during and after the crisis with all key stakeholders, such as students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, the local community? Think for a moment about Virginia Tech. The communication needs of all stakeholders, especially current students and their families, are easily recognized by any practitioner. But what about every other college and university and educational institution across America? When the news of Virginia Tech broke, it is understandable that students and their parents everywhere would immediately become concerned about safety, no matter what the educational institution. If you are a communication/PR director at another college or university or educational institution and an event like the Virginia Tech incident happens, what do you do? Are there proactive measures you should take, even though the crisis is at another institution? I believe that there are. The more quickly you are proactive in communicating with your key stakeholders, the better. Lack of a quick response in a crisis, whether it is yours or that of a similar organization, creates a vacuum that will be filled with rumors, incorrect information, or speculation. For similar organizations not having the actual crisis, it is an opportunity to demonstrate concern for stakeholders and show that your organization is prepared to deal with crises.
- Media savvy. Communication/PR professionals must know media characteristics, both positive attributes and limitations, and how to work with each medium. This includes social media. I have read reports of Virginia Tech students and other stakeholders using all forms of social media to communicate during the crisis there.
- Reputation management. One of the best ways to help an organization get the benefit of the doubt during a crisis begins long before any crisis actually happens. Organizations, including educational institutions, must work hard to develop a good reputation. Bad news — it takes time and effort to develop a good reputation. Good news — that’s why they hire us. An organization with a good reputation before a crisis has a better chance to come through a crisis with its reputation intact. But, only if it manages crisis communication effectively.
- Coordinating with other agencies. How will you coordinate with local, regional, and national law enforcement officials and/or their public affairs officers? Have you planned for this in advance? Do you have a working relationship with these individuals? Effective coordination helps cut redundancy and conflicting information, and subsequently, helps all key stakeholders to get accurate, up-to-date information.
This posting is meant to be a thought and discussion starter for the More With Les Learning Community. We post these initial thoughts and questions for students to consider as they prepare for their careers. Instructors must be aware of and knowledgeable about such topics, too, in order to prepare students. The task of teaching current and future practitioners falls to entities like Towson’s Mass Communication department and IABC and PRSA professional development programs. But now I ask you, given what we have seen in the last few days, what’s the complete list of job-related knowledge and skills future communication/PR practitioners (and their instructors) must have to be successful and effective?