This webinar will examine how the public relations strategies that companies employ during crisis (such as the Covid-19 crisis) may impact their corporate brand and reputation after the crisis is over.
You’ll also be hearing from alum Susan J. West speak about the impact GW has had on her successful career as a communications executive and a public official.
Professor Larry Parnell, Program Director and Associate Professor
Susan J. West, Sr. Business Planning and Communications Manager at Amazon
Perfect. Hello, everyone. It is now 12 noon Eastern, and we are going to get started. So, welcome to the George Washington University’s webinar, featuring our program director, Professor Larry Parnell and GW alum, Susan J. West, to speak on the topic, Moving Beyond Crisis and Preparing for What’s Next. Susan will also share insights about her GW experience, so have your questions ready. I look forward to introducing them to you. Thanks, everyone, for attending.
Before I introduce you to our panelists, let’s go over some housekeeping items. Since the presentation is being recorded, your lines are muted to ensure sound quality. At any time, please forward your comments or questions to me via the Q&A window. It’s the purple icon on your menu. Other functions to note on your menu are the resources icon in green with a link to our program website, and other valuable resources are provided. Next to that is a great link chain icon to book a telephone appointment with a member of our enrollment team.
Now, I’d like to introduce you to our panelists. Susan J. West is an executive communications and media relations professional. Currently, she is a senior business planning and communications manager at Amazon in Seattle. Her work included crisis communication, media relations, social media, and executive communications for the Department of Transportation, including King County International Airport, Boeing Field, and the Road Services Department.
Susan is also an elected official. She was mayor of the City of Normandy Park in Washington State, and has served on the city council since January, 2012. She has a master’s degree in strategic public relations from George Washington University, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington. Susan is also a three-time Emmy nominated journalist. She worked in the TV news industry for 20 years where she was a TV anchor, reporter, and producer. Susan also has a public affairs program on CNN Headline News. In the Seattle market, she has emceed events for 20 years and has guest lectures at the University of Washington in the Luxembourg and France. In fact, Susan has flown in a Thunderbird F-16 and hit 9Gs. So, Susan, can’t wait to hear more about that.
Joining our conversation is professor and program director, Larry J Parnell, who is an award-winning public relations professional and academics. He also operates Parnell Communications, a strategic communications and leadership training advisory firm. In this role, he advises government, corporate, and nonprofit organizations on executive development and strategic communications. Prior to coming to GW, he has had a successful 35 year career in private and public sector. He’s been recognized with many awards, including the Professor of The Year. He has brought the master’s program to be named the best PR education program by PRWeek in 2015.
He’s also a frequent author and speaker on communication strategy, crisis and issues management, has written many books, including the introduction… where he’s coauthor of the book called Introduction to Strategic Public Relations, Communication Effectively in a Socially Responsible World. Welcome both Professor Parnell, as well as Susan. Now I’d like to invite Professor Parnell to speak on today’s topic.
Thank you very much, Kira. Welcome, everybody. Thanks for taking the time to be with us today. It’s an interesting time to be in our business communications, whether you’re in the private sector, public sector, and nonprofit, or work for a consulting firm. We are probably, as been observed, dealing with two viruses. One of course is COVID, and one of course is concerns about racism, police brutality, and the need for social justice. All of these become factors that we as communications professionals have to deal with.
Personally, of course, as well as professional on behalf of our clients and our companies, our goal today is to talk to you in a very general sense about these issues, and about how we might prepare ourselves to adapt to what’s going on. As I mentioned, there’s probably no better time and no easier time to be in this business because the value of strategic communications council is probably at its all time high, but so are the stakes. So, let’s begin with that.
First though, you’ve heard a bit about Susan, but let me let Susan introduce herself and tell you a bit about her story, how she came to this program. You did hear that she is a former television news professional. It’s interesting to note, as we were chatting before the meeting, a substantial percentage of our students, both online and on-campus, I would say 15 to 20% are former journalists, either because they’ve seen the growth opportunities in public relations, or unfortunately, the decline in traditional journalism has been a very strong movement towards journalists coming into our business. They find a university degree from a recognized school is a very important step in that process. Let’s let Susan tell you about that. Susan?
Susan J. West:
Well, thank you so much. I’m excited to be a part of this webinar. I really appreciate the introduction, Kira and Professor Parnell. Hello, everyone out there. Yes, my background began in television news, broadcasting, journalism. I found that in my reporting career of about 20 years, I covered primarily breaking news; anything that had to do with something very controversial, very sensitive, a disaster, a crisis, everything that you can imagine that would be suddenly that breaking news that you see on a newscast, or you would read on the front of the newspaper, or see suddenly tweeted.
What I found during that time period of being a journalist was that people would often contact me after a story, and they’d say, “Hey, I know that you’ve covered breaking news, can you help give us advice on media relations of how to handle a disaster?” So, what I ended up doing outside my television job was consulting for almost two decades, as well providing advice for handling crisis situations, whether it be for a company, a nonprofit, an emergency agency, individuals, politicians. So, it was an interesting turning point in my life where I was at about the 18, 19 year mark of news and realized that I wanted to make a significant change. I wanted to use all those skills that I’ve been building up over the years in media relations and crisis communications, and had to make it a full time job.
What was exciting to me, too, is I came from a family where going back to school later in your life and/or making a big career change, a dramatic career change, was something that my family did. So, that really gave me the confidence to say, “You know what, I’m going to hang up my news hat and go full time into school, and then full time into public relations.” So, that’s what I’ve been doing ever since I graduated from this program in 2011. I can honestly say that this program is what helped me launch right into the PR career. It was the bridge between leaving news and going into a crisis career field.
So, I’m excited to be a part of this. I look forward to talking about how I’ve worked with my city. As Kira had mentioned, I’m currently an elected official for my city, and I work very closely with their communications. Then, as I mentioned, I’ve worked in communications for many years with other organizations. I’m unable to talk about Amazon today, but I can talk about everything else that I’ve been doing in my career, including currently with my city. So, I look forward to the discussion and questions later on.
Okay. Thank you very much, Susan. Now, you’re all probably sitting there thinking, “I can’t even compete with that. Look at that background she just described.” I don’t want you to be intimidated. There you are, Susan. Now looking at this picture, I remember that day, graduation. One of the joys of my work in
this role is that I get to teach the students, as I say, in your first class and your last class, and I shake your hand on stage of graduation. I do remember Susan back in 2011. Now that I see this picture, I can remember that very special day.
But I don’t want the people on this call to think, “I can’t at all compete with that.” Obviously, we’re going to bring out a superstar because we want you all to be impressed. I’m impressed with Susan. I’m sure you are as well.
Susan J. West:
The students who come into our program come from all kinds of backgrounds, not just career changers, recent undergraduates, early to mid-career professionals, people looking to get a master’s degree so later on they can maybe teach. So, there’s room for all kinds of people. The beauty of our program, and we’ll get into the discussion of today, is the variety of people you will encounter with all kinds of backgrounds and experience, and levels of awareness and skills when it comes to PR.
What we have in common is we love this business. We want to communicate better and smarter, more effectively on behalf of our clients and our companies. This program is designed by practitioners to do just that. So, don’t be intimidated, be inspired by Susan’s background.
For today, what I want to do really is not have a formal presentation. Susan and I have discussed this. We’re going to really talk about where we are right now as a profession, and what’s going on in society. We’re going to talk about the implications of that for internal communications, external communications, for about five or 10 minutes on each topic, max. And then, we will have some key takeaways for you, a little background on our program, which comes after that. Then the important part, questions and answers with all of you.
As Kira has indicated, you can post your questions in the background on the chat feature, she will gather them all up. As time allows at the end, we will take them as many as we can and take any new ones that come in, and you can ask about the issues we’re discussing. You can ask about the program. You can ask any number of things that are on your mind today. But that’s our agenda. That’s our goal for today. So, Susan, let’s get started.
I think this emoji is a good indication of where we are, the current landscape that we find ourselves as communications professionals and educators, basically, in an unprecedented time in our country. There is ongoing crisis. I wrote a piece the other day, was really very descriptive about COVID-19, that unlike almost every other crisis that anyone has talked about and has experienced, this one is totally external to companies. Although it’s not something that happened, it’s not an accident, it’s not management misbehaving, it’s not criminal behavior, it’s not even a natural disaster. It’s external, number one. Number two, it is ongoing, and does not have a beginning, middle, and an end, as far as we know at this point.
So, there is no… it’s this constant state of crisis response and readiness for the next turn, whatever it is. That puts us, both affirmatively as well as perhaps somewhat nervously, right in the middle of this process of trying to figure out how do we represent our companies, our government agencies, our nonprofits in such a difficult time for everyone when what is happening is beyond our control, and all we can control is how we respond and what we do to help people cope with the impact of let’s begin with the COVID crisis.
Susan, what are your thoughts on where we are now vis-a-vis the COVID crisis. You’re in Seattle where a lot of this started, so you’ve got a perspective on that. Tell us a bit about what’s happening in your area, and what you see challenges that communicators are facing, and some of the things that you’ve had to deal with have come up and been resolved.
Susan J. West:
Yes, we live rather close to the retirement home where this really began, or you could say was first recognized, the COVID illness, in the city of Kirkland. I’m about 20 minutes from there. Obviously, it’s been a shock to everyone around the world going through this situation because it just had seemed so unreal and unpredictable, and not knowing what’s going to happen next. We’ve had to adjust so much in our lives with not being with all of our family members. Like I haven’t seen my sister-in-law in months and she lives just walking distance from my home, but it’s because she’s very high risk in terms of her health issues. So, we want to ensure that she’s okay.
So, the whole situation has obviously been so shocking. In my city as well, one of our city staff members was recently diagnosed. Our mayor was diagnosed with it. My neighbors two doors up had COVID. It’s so close to all of us. So, in my city, for example, what we’ve done is we’ve tried to figure out how do we pull everyone together during such a stressful and frightening time because this is an illness that none of us have encountered before. It seems so unpredictable, and we’re not sure where it’s even headed at this point. Because as you may have heard in Washington State, we heard from the governor, and now there’s going to be a mandate to wear masks at all times in public places. So, just when we thought things were improving health-wise in control of the illness, it seems to be going backwards.
So, in our city, for example, I brainstormed with a community member on how can we pull people together? How can we build community during a frightening time? As you may have seen in one of the slides, two of the slides actually, you see a heart, a red heart, and it says heart in the park. The city I live in is Normandy Park. The colleague that had contacted me, said, “My son works in an ER, my daughter works in an ER. I’m frightened for their health, but I’m also so grateful that they’re there, that they’re helping people. What can we do to thank them? What can we do to build community utilizing communications and crisis communication skills?” So, she came to me to ask what were my ideas?
I said, “We need to start a campaign. Let’s call it Heart in the Park, get everyone to put hearts in their windows so that any time an emergency worker is driving by, walking by, bicycling by to get to and from work, they see that heart. They know that someone is thinking of them, someone they don’t know.” To me, from a communications and crisis communication standpoint, that is bringing people together and creating a little feeling of calmness.
We’ve even gone to the point where the hearts have been featured as the backdrop for city council meetings, with all the council members, to show unity in this difficult time. It has also been used in our magazines. We have one of the highest percentages of seniors in our county, so we use a mix of modern communications. So, obviously, social media, electronic emails, et cetera, but also paper magazines and postings on bulletin boards, and includes those hearts. So, it’s very important [inaudible 00:17:52] be able to pull people together during a difficult time.
What goes hand in hand with that is ensuring that you’re giving communication, you’re talking to your staff, you’re talking to your stakeholders, whether it be your customers, your taxpayers, partners in business, nonprofits, you keep that communication channel open. That’s what our city has been doing, is continually reaching out to the community. We don’t know all the answers. So, instead of saying, “No comment, we don’t know anything,” instead, it’s, “We’re still trying to find answers. We’re still trying to find information. We’re staying in contact with all of the experts during this.”
There’s all kinds of advice that’s included in what you’re suggesting there, but a lot of it has to do with its authenticity, its credibility, a fair amount or legitimate amount of sentiment and caring. And acknowledgement that we don’t have all the answers, but as we get information and as we know what is happening and what we’re going to do about it, we will share that with you to build that trust that people are looking for in an uncertain time.
Now, let’s turn the page and say that for sure Seattle’s also front and center, lately, it seems, in the whole issue regarding police brutality and racial unrest in this country. What are you seeing and what’s happening in your city, and how are companies responding [inaudible 00:19:27].
Susan J. West:
I think my line is crackling. Can everyone still hear me okay?
I can hear you, Susan, but I have trouble hearing Larry.
Susan J. West:
Well, I heard the first part of his question, so I think I could go ahead and address that, if that’s all right. So, in Seattle, as I imagine you’ve seen on the news, there has been many walks, peaceful marches. There’s been, sadly, violence. There is now the area known as CHOP, which is upon Capitol Hill, that’s a portion of Seattle. There are many signs in people’s windows supporting BLM. There is so much going on right now with both this very sensitive issue and with COVID at the same time. What I’ve been seeing from our city and others is a very strong effort to, again, keep that channel of communication open, and talk to people, and have a dialogue, have a dialogue with their own staff, have an open dialogue with the community, have a dialogue with the nonprofits that are part of the peaceful marches and the effort to gain social justice. There’s efforts to talk to the police departments.
In my city, for example, we just recently had a walk, and a huge number of people showed up, which was just so amazing. Everyone was asked to dress in black and to be silent. It was a silent walk. The police department and chief walked with them, and city officials, and council members greeted them with water at city hall where it ended. There were no speakers, but that I understand was intentional because it was meant to be a moment to reflect. To me, that’s an incredible partnership right there, from a communication standpoint, of moving forward, of being able to all talk to each other and walk together, and talk about the future together.
So, that is what we’re starting to see. I know in the news that a lot of the focus has been on others that has caused violence, but at the same time, there’s these incredible efforts, like what we’re seeing in my city. There’s lots of signs in people’s windows that say black lives matter, and that we need to move forward with social justice. So, what I see is an incredible effort by many companies and government agencies to take both of these very stressful issues that are going on right now in social justice, and they’re moving forward together.
So, I’m seeing a lot of… For example, with my city, there’ll be emails sent out to the public that have both in the body of the email that talk both about BLM and COVID. So, both of them have joined together in the communication effort. I think that’s important as well, to make sure that we’re talking about both of these huge issues and keeping it very, very fluid at this point.
Right. Because we can’t… As important as the discussion is around racial unrest and police conduct, we still have a virus that’s killing people, and making people sick, and impacting the economy going on. You can’t ignore one, no matter how deserving and important the other one is. So, it makes it very difficult to pivot, but that’s what we have to do as communicators on behalf of our companies. We’ve got to be able to pivot back and forth.
So, let’s talk specifically now about from an internal communications perspective, one of the things I’ve observed in looking into this matter and talking with professionals across the country, students and alums, as well as my colleagues, is that this crisis… I’m thinking about COVID, but also really the whole Black Lives Matter Movement have really raised the stakes and the importance of internal communications. I think this is because of a couple of factors.
We already had a trend where employees were expecting their CEOs and leaders to speak out on social issues, almost as a condition of continued employment and support of corporate objectives. We’ve moved past the point of time where a job is where you went to earn a paycheck and went home. There are now many, many people that are looking for their companies to share their beliefs, or at least be active on social issues, not silent. That isn’t an option anymore.
So, as these companies facing these challenges, it becomes problematic for us as communicators if we aren’t consistently communicating with employees as much as we are with any other key stakeholder. Whether it’s investors, whether it’s colleagues, whether it’s the public, we have a responsibility to really work with that audience as well. I think it’s challenging for a lot of companies because they don’t really know how to do that very well. So, what are some ideas and best practices you’ve observed in your time as a reporter, and now as a city official and corporate executive, about how effectively we can communicate internally with our employees to prepare them to deal with questions as well as make them feel safe on their own selves? What are your thoughts on that, Susan?
Susan J. West:
Well, I’m definitely seeing two things that have been changing over the years, which I’m really happy to see, because I started in my career back in around, gosh, 1988. I’m starting to see a balance between life and work in this change over the years. I’m also seeing a change in the us versus them mentality in workplaces. Where, for example, with my last employer, I really, really was so happy that we were able to have such a trickle down effect of emails to staff when there was an emergency happening, or a crisis, or something very sensitive, where people were feeling, rightly so, very emotional about an issue. You wouldn’t just see an email come out from the top CEO, you would see a trickle down effect of forwarding. So, the next chain of leadership then would forward that email to the next chain of leadership with a personal note. It would keep coming down, and down, and down to the rest of the staff.
So, it became more and more personal where you’re hearing the personality of that leader as they’re saying, “As you can see, so-and-so just shared this email with me about how this is a very sensitive time. We want to know that we’re thinking about all of you. Now I want you to know how I feel about this. Please share this out with your staff.” So, I’m seeing a much more, from my last employers, this incredible personal touch that’s being added. That’s the effort of the communications people working with leadership and saying, “We’ve gotta be real people.” We have-
Susan J. West:
And then, also what I’m seeing is that life-work balance, which is so wonderful. For example, when I worked for the Association for Justice, I ran their internal communications, and that’s a social justice lobbying group trade association for trial lawyers. There was the flexibility to [inaudible 00:28:27] issues and take some time to think about them. Instead of, when I first started in my career, it was, you were on the clock 24/7, no excuses. It doesn’t matter if some [inaudible 00:28:40] about a social justice issue going on in the world, you work, and you work continually or you’re not going to be here anymore.
So, I think we have really, in the last 10 years, entered an era where you can be yourself, you can express your feelings, you can stand for a cause, and you can do that at work in many workplaces I’ve seen. Perhaps not all, but I think more are starting to understand this is part of life. So, hand in hand, that’s communications and leadership working together. I think that’s so exciting because also that helps with retention because this means the business is listening to you as a human, as a person, they care about you.
That’s what started the whole issue of the no-comment. We’re not going to talk about something, which we know is the cardinal rule. You never do that in communications. You never let your CEO or your president of your company [inaudible 00:29:40] do that. You’ve gotta be a real person and talk, and be very strategic.
The examples I give is, if you’re in a car, you’re looking five cars ahead. You’re not just looking at the car right in front of you and you should look at the car behind you. This all stems from a car crash I actually was in a news vehicle. I saw that something was happening way ahead, and I was able to stop my car. So, I didn’t hit the car in front of me, but I also wasn’t watching behind me and didn’t see that a car was about to hit me. It did hit me. I was at a standstill, and it hit me at 60 miles an hour.
So, I looked at that and I thought, “Okay, I never saw any of this coming, but for a moment, life slowed down.” I had a second to think about things, but I didn’t think about everything around me. I now compare that to communications where we’ve got to look five cars ahead. We have to look at the car ahead of us. We have to look at the car behind us, and realize it may be something new we’re headed into like COVID, but we have to be ready for anything and we have to be flexible, and we have to be quick thinkers. So, that I think-
Well, I think that’s very good advice. I think that companies are realizing now… I know earlier in my career, I worked in the banking sector, which was going through a difficult time. That is that customers… if you have a retail business and there are people that interact with the public on behalf of the company, customers don’t call 800 numbers or headquarters, or PR and ask, “Is the bank safe? Is my money safe?” They ask the people in the branch, they ask the teller, they ask the manager, they ask the loan officer.
So, if you have not communicated whatever the situation is… Currently, the bank’s policy on social distancing, and masks, and/or whatever issue is going on, if you haven’t communicated to your people and their answer is, “I don’t know, they never tell me anything,” that undermines consumer confidence in the institution, that makes employees feel less valuable. It raises the stakes for internal communications in a crisis situation when you need those ambassadors on the front line who are going to interact with your customers and keep or lose them on the basis of whether or not they are prepared to answer general questions. Not to be the spokesperson, but at least to have some sense of where the company stands. So, this is internal communications and why it’s so critical.
Susan J. West:
Yes, [crosstalk 00:32:24].
Moving into… Go ahead.
Susan J. West:
I was going to say-
Finish up on that, then we’ll go to external. Yeah.
Susan J. West:
Sure. So, I found that when I was working for the government, for the county, that the… I worked for Department of Transportation… road crews would be out working on roads. Of course, that’s where the public would see a county worker, and come up and ask a question about something like, “What are you doing?” Or, “Hey, do you know anything about this controversy over a bridge closing?” What we found is that these employees didn’t know what to say. So, either it was, “I can’t talk to you,” or it was, they gave a lot of information that was internal information.
So, what I ended up doing was writing up a manual. It was about 40 pages, but it mapped out exactly what would be the appropriate thing to say at all levels of employment for that particular department in the Department of Transportation. So, when anyone is out there, whether it be someone mowing grass on the county property, or putting now new asphalt, or whoever may be, someone flagging people through, that know what to say so they don’t feel awkward, and they don’t feel uncomfortable in having to say, “I can’t talk to you.” We had a chain of command that they would go through, and it was a non-intimidating experience and plan for them.
It’s just so important to keep that kind of communication open with all levels of staff. It’s also very empowering to the staff as well, to be able to give comments with a very cheerful message that they’ve been given. So, I’m a huge fan of, again, planning ahead, having a plan for how staff respond to a crisis.
Yeah. I think too many organizations say you have to call the main office, and they don’t say anything. That distances the employee from the company, doesn’t connect with the customer, and leaves everybody unsatisfied. So, I think this is something that really needs to be thought through, especially at a time like we’re in right now where so many people are asking frontline people, “What’s going on? Is it going to be okay? Are you going to be open? Are you going to be closed? Am I going to be safe as an employee coming to work?” These are all things you have to empower people to be able to answer, or at least give them a way to get an answer to somebody.
Now, let’s move to the external communications front because we also have an interesting dynamic going on in the world. Many people on this call, and perhaps you’re familiar with as well, the Edelman Trust Barometer, which is put out every year for the past 20 some odd years now. It’s become really a go-to for gauging public opinion and where we stand. The most recent one for 2020 reiterates… And it’s even worse now I’m sure, because they did a quick update because of COVID… that trust, I’m sorry to say, Susan, in government is declining. Mostly at the national level, not so much at the local level. There’s hope for local folks yet. There’s an expectation that business will solve problems that government is unable or unwilling to address for political or other reasons.
This used to be the fact when you look at countries around the world. Now, this is true in the United States as well. There is a decline in the expectation and the belief that government can get out of its own way at the federal level, in particular, to solve problems. So, large corporations are being asked to take on issues, have a point of view, and drive change. You’ve seen companies speaking out prior to COVID and the current situation, but historically, there was a lot of discussion about immigration, same sex marriage, any number of issues that people were concerned, homelessness, depending upon where your company was headquartered, that companies had to take on and talk about that had nothing to do with their core business. So, it became very problematic for them.
Now we’re in a situation where every company is expected to have a point of view on the virus, its prevention and detection, and what we do next, and on racism and police brutality. Most companies are not very well-prepared for this. This often falls to the communications people to sort this out. So, as we think about that challenge, and based on your experience, both as a journalist and now as someone working on the corporate side and the government arena, what are some of the things that are working? What are some ideas and suggestions you have for improving external communications during an ongoing systemic crisis like we’re facing now on two fronts?
Susan J. West:
Well, I think that social media has given us such a gift in terms of having a platform. Now, I will often say that social media has also, unfortunately, given a platform to very negative people and forces.
Well, proverbial two-edged sword.
Susan J. West:
It really is. Like I said before, it’s the best and worst thing that happened in our world. I also have a 501 (c)(3) with a number of colleagues of mine. The focus is helping our city, because it’s always in financial trouble. It doesn’t have a lot of sales tax. So, what we do is we raise money and we have community building events to build morale, and move us forward together. Whether we are able to financially be stable or not, we’re going to move forward together in this situation.
We’ve found that social media has enabled us to be able to get our message out about who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish. So, that’s been just so amazing. With businesses as well, they also have that capability of using social media. I could use an example of, I don’t know if you recall, but in Seattle a couple of years ago, there was a massive snow storm. I know most areas of the country get much worse snow than Seattle. But when Seattle gets snow, it’s really not prepared. We don’t have the snowplows that everyone else has because snow is so rare, but we had… it was an epic storm that actually the National Guard had to come in and help with.
I was in charge of social media for particular departments, the road services, which is the whole infrastructure of King County road wise in terms of county roads. I found that social media became a lifeline where people were tweeting me in the middle of the night saying… They didn’t know it was to me, they were tweeting the County Road Services Department. They were saying, “We can’t get out of our driveway. We’ve been trapped for four days. Can you send help?”
So, instead of calling 911, and maybe it’s that the lines were busy, they were reaching out through social media. So, what I did is I reached out to my leadership and I said, “I need you to let me take off with this because I know how to manage the conversations. I know the messaging. These people are begging for help, and we need to be able to help them. I can’t say, ‘Not our problem, call 911.'”
What ended up happening as a result of all these social media posts coming in, begging for help, and the overload on 911, the county created a special 24/7 number. So, my interaction with all these people ended up being like a play by play, “Okay, the snowplow is getting closer, the snowplow’s getting closer. Okay, you should see the snowplow right now.” We didn’t have that capability before social media to do that. So, I really feel that-
Yeah, I think that’s a key point because I know that I’ve been on panels that had discussions with Red Cross, and care, and disaster recovery organizations. They share the same observation that through social media, they can deal directly with on a live current basis people in need. What this all points to, this is a really important distinction you brought up, that clearly social media is a challenge, obviously, both good and bad, but it’s a tremendous platform and opportunity if we know how to take advantage of it. And I mean in a positive way to communicate and reach people directly. Use it for what… the good part, as opposed to the bad part.
For a lot of our students, this is a way to make that transition into communications work, is understanding, applying social media to business and government solutions and taking skills that they might’ve developed as a journalist or somewhere else and applying them in this way. So, the social media really is a, used the term earlier, a bridge for people into PR. It is not the only bright, shiny object that’s out there, and the only thing that you can do, but there’s an increase in going beyond just owned media, which is traditional media relations and new stories. But that’s limiting.
But through sponsored and owned media, your own website, your own Twitter accounts, your corporate outlets, you can have interactions on a one-on-one basis with the public and get your message out and, with all due respect, not rely on an overburdened challenged media to do that for you. So, it’s not just in a disaster, but in general, this is a tremendous opportunity. It requires an understanding of how to use social media and the communication skills necessary to be successful at it. Would you agree?
Susan J. West:
Yes, and you own your message. [inaudible 00:43:04] what I try to explain to people who would say to me, “I don’t want to make a comment on that.” Like corporations, government agencies, whatever it may be, “I don’t want to make a comment on that.” I would explain, “If you don’t make a comment, there’s a chance that someone else is going to speak for you, and they’re not going to be associated with you. They probably won’t even know what your message is. They may not even care because they’re going to come up with their own message for you.”
So, social media, I feel, is both an obligation and an opportunity for us in nonprofits, agencies, and companies, to be able to own our message and sincerely build our trust, which is what happened with the whole snow storm situation in King County. We built trust. We regained some trust back into the government because we sincerely were responding to people and helping them get help. Not replacing 911, but sending them to the right people. I was spending most of those nights contacting the crews, the snow crews and county officials saying, “So-and-so has just contacted me from the City of Kirkland. They’ve been stuck in a cul-de-sac for four days. We need someone out there now.” They say, “Well, we’re really busy.” “No, these people are trapped.”
So, see, now I’ve taken on… It is a different role. It’s more than communications, but at the same time, it is building relationships, building trust, and letting people know that we are human in governmen
Right. Right. I think that’s what’s happening now. You see a lot of companies that are handling the volume of inquiries and concerns both the COVID and the Black Lives Matter Movement raised for employees and for customers, and not waiting for the government to solve the problem. And saying, “Here’s what we’re going to do in our own… what we can control to show we’re listening. We’re aware, we’re concerned. We’re going to reflect on our diversity and inclusion. We’re going to improve our healthcare packages for our employees to make sure they’re covered in case of COVID and complications from it.”
They’re not waiting for the government to do it. Then, they’re sharing that information themselves directly through social media, as well as the traditional media. We don’t want to denigrate that. That’s a great opportunity. That’s still very valid, and there’s something about getting a good story placed that carries a lot of weight. So, that is not something we’re abandoning, but we’re not saying that’s your only tool in the toolbox.
So, in the interest of time, let me just get to some key takeaways, then we can get to questions from people, if you don’t mind. So, what this conversation I’m hoping is communicating to those of you on the phone today, and those of you hearing this recording version later, there’s good news and bad news, is that communication has never been more important to our organizations and to our clients. There are factors that are making us, as organizations, reevaluate how we operate, how we communicate, what we say, who we say it to, when we say it. This all requires a lot of careful thought and strategic planning.
We’re not advocating you just wing it and hope that you figure it out, there is a thoughtful, strategic approach behind this effort that is available and can be applied in the heat of the moment. That is a big part of what we work on in our program. It comes from the fact that, as you can tell, we’re practitioners, and former practitioners, and journalists who live this stuff every day. I’m telling you that we can and will respond to this moment because how we respond as communicators today, how companies respond as communicators today, is going to be impact our reputations, personal or professional, for years.
I tell people all the time, it’s not the details of the crisis, generally, that people remember, it is the sense of how the company or organization behaved during that crisis. There’s no easier example of that than on the one hand Johnson and Johnson and the Tylenol recall, and BP and the Deepwater Horizon situation. Forever people will think of Deepwater horizon as a disaster that was BP’s fault, and they handled it badly. People still talk about, perhaps even almost glorifying, Johnson and Johnson’s role in stepping up and recalling Tylenol from the shelves. This is almost 40 some odd years ago. So, this is no question. What happens now affects us for some time in the future.
In the middle of all this, back in the middle of all this good, and hopefully not bad, we as communicators, we are in the reputation business after all. That’s what we do. We need to be strategic advisors, not mechanics who execute press releases, and press conferences, and stuff that has to be done, but actually people who have advice, and counsel, and the skillset to implement tactics when you know what the right tactic is. So, all of this leads us to admonition and a suggestion that however you decide to do this, as professionals, we’re encouraging you to engage in continuous learning and updating your skills because that’s the only way you’re going to keep up and be successful.
You cannot… As Susan, after a 20 year career decides to get a master’s degree, that would seem crazy, but it’s moved through the direction now that she’s gratified and excited about. So, however you decide to do this, as professionals, you don’t just rely on the way you always used to do things. You need to learn new skills and new details. That’s what masters programs like ours are all about. You have lots
of choices out there. Obviously, we prefer ours for the reasons that you might indicate or might assume. Based on having done this for a number of years, and people like Susan graduating, we’re pretty proud of what we do.
So, let me tell you briefly, I promise, about our program. A couple of quick slides, and then we’ll get to your questions. Our program is 10 courses, 30 credit hours. It can be done in a little over a year. You can do it online, completely online, or you can do it on-campus in Washington, DC. We do have a coursework that’s described there. We have six basic courses in strategy, writing, research, media relations. We have a required course on fundamentals of business and finance, which is really, really important if you want to be at the big table with the big boys and girls, that you understand business enough to be able to be conversant.
We also have a required course on ethics because we want to produce people who are good at what they do and honorable when they do it. And then, our electives go across the market, depending on your interests; CSR, strategic marketing, public opinion, issues management crisis. We have a Washington DC residency that you can participate in. We also have global residencies which happen on overseas basis in four different markets a year. This may be new for you, Susan. We do four times a year like Brussels, London, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, any number of places. It rotates where you spent a week in the country learning from PR professionals, NGOs, government officials, and the media, and then you write a paper based on that experience. That is in elective, but you can do in our program. It’s been set up, it’s unique to GW, and it’s really pretty cool.
Then the last thing you do is a capstone project. The capstone project has also evolved, Susan. Now it’s a full semester, and you do an individual project, not a group project. We offer you the choice to do either a case study, which is… the standard is, could we publish the case study and a journal, or communications plan that you could hand to a client or the CEO. That’s the standard for the final project that you do. Many people do it for their current employers. That’s fine. We don’t assign it. You pick the topic, whatever you’re interested in, want to learn more about. Something in the program has sparked your interest, you can do your capstone based on that.
As Kira said, we’ve gotten a lot of nice awards. We’re very proud of these, very proud of the fact that we have a strong focus on the military. Important here to think about, “Okay, it’s all well and good, Professor Parnell, but are you producing people that get jobs?” Well, the answer is yes, they get promotions. They get raises, they get new careers. That’s the business we’re in. We produce people who are going to succeed. If they don’t succeed, then we go back and figure out why. So, we’re proud of these results taken from the most recent studies of graduates in 2019.
We’re very military friendly. We have all kinds of programs and activities that support military members, active duty, retired spouses. They had a great deal through our classes, and we’re very proud to have them be part of our program. I think I’m now turning it over to Angelina who will talk to you very quickly about admissions, and then we’ll get to the Q&A. Angelina?
Hi, thank you, Professor Parnell. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you again for attending our webinar today. Professor Parnell and Ms. West, great to hear from you and your insight into moving beyond the crisis. The next step for you now is to contact one of our enrollment advisors here who will be able to help you with the application and answer any other questions you might have. We will provide you with an email with a link to our online application called GW Force Portal, where you will need to create a username and password to log in and start uploading your documents.
The application requirements are as follows; two letters of recommendation. If you are a recent graduate within the last three to five years, one letter must be academic, and the other professional. If you graduated more than three years or so, both recommendation letters can be professional. Upload your updated resume, upload a 250 to 500 word statement of purpose essay discussing really why you’re looking into this program.
Regarding transcripts, you have the option to upload either unofficial transcripts from all schools attended, including your associates, bachelor’s, transfer credits, postgrad courses, degrees, or unofficial… sorry, or older official transcripts sent directly to the school here. Your advisor will be able to upload it for you on your behalf. Keep in mind, if you are accepted into the program, all official transcripts will be required. When it comes to the GPA, we will review applicants with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher.
However, if your GPA is slightly below 3.0, and you do have at least three years of professional full time PR-related work experience, we will review your application, but we will also request the following; secondary what’s called a descriptive essay of 250 to 500 words or so. This essay is where you can showcase your work in PR or related marketing or communication as a role, or roles, and where you describe the nature duties in your duration of your qualified experience. As well, you will also need to provide us with two portfolio sample pieces, such as press releases, again, writing samples, research projects, or any published work that you’ve completed.
As well, There is the $80 nonrefundable online application fee. The application fee is waived for active duty military and GW alum. Again, there is no GRE or thesis requirements for this program.
[crosstalk 00:55:49]. Let me just say something. One, the essay is really important because I read these essays. What we’re looking for is your passion. What is it you care about? What is it you want to do, and how will this program help you accomplish that? That’s number one.
The second thing I want to point out to you is, for people who have grade point averages above 3.0 and have prior professional public relations experience, we will waive the writing class. You don’t get to… You could take another elective. Many people who qualify for this, for example, they’re still going to take 30 credits, but you don’t have to take the advance writing class if you’ve been writing.
Someone like Susan, we would not require the writing class now because she’s been writing for 20 years. It doesn’t make sense to put her in a writing class with people who are just learning how to write press releases. So, instead, we would say, “You can take an additional elective.” Many people choose to use one of those trips to Europe, or Asia, or Latin America without elective. So, if you fall in that category, make sure to share with us your writing samples from your professional work, and nine times out of 10, that will result in one less required course and one more elective you can take.
Great. Thank you. So, yes, we are accepting applications for the fall. It’s the August 31st start date. Our application deadline is July 15th. Contact your enrollment advisor here today. We will help you get started. So, the online phone number is +1 866-477-2363, or the on-campus one, (202) 994-6000.
Okay, great. Kira?
Wonderful. Thank you so much, Angelina. So, yes, we are coming on to the Q&A segment now. There’s quite a number of questions that come in. I know we have four minutes left before the event, so I just want to let you know if we’re not able to get in touch with you and respond to your questions, we will reach back, follow up with you with the responses. So, the first question here, I guess Professor Parnell, you can them, and Susan, if you want to chime in. How would you handle social media in a situation where constituents or members demand a response that is not keeping with the business mission or process? No response other than their demand is good enough in their view.
I understand the question. Somebody is seeking a comment from an organization or statements on social media that is not really relevant to that company’s mission or business. Without knowing the specifics of the case, it’s hard to say. But generally, I would say, back to what Susan said, first of all, not commenting at all is not an option. However, saying to someone that, “I appreciate your concerns about whatever the matter is, it’s not something that we’re directly involved in. It doesn’t relate to our business. At this point, we don’t have a response that we can provide you, but we will take the matter under advisement and get back to you if that changes.”
Just because someone demands an answer on a topic that’s not relevant or appropriate for you to answer, it doesn’t mean you have to engage on that. You can decline politely with a reason, an explanation, and then perhaps take it offline with the person and try and source what their issue is. If they’re looking to create a profile for themselves, there’s no point engaging in that process, but if you look unresponsive, you’ve only supported what they’re trying to accomplish. Susan, any thoughts about that quickly before we get to the next question?
Susan J. West:
I completely agree, because I ran into that a lot with working in government where people would ask me questions on Twitter and other social media sites that had nothing to do with our department or issues that we were responsible for. So, I always made it really personable with what you just said, “We appreciate you reaching out. This isn’t our area of work, but can I give you a call? We’ll discuss it, and I’ll see if I can direct you to the right person.” So, there has been times where-
Yeah, especially in government, there may be… the thing to do is to say that the right person to talk to is Mary in the Department of Sanitation. Calling me about a trash removal problem or a police problem in current environment is not something I have anything to say about, and I appreciate your interest, but the person to talk to is Mary Smith, who’s the public information officer for the department of police, for example, right?
Susan J. West:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Because I’ve seen the opposite where, “We don’t handle that. That’s not our issue.” That’s, obviously, the worst thing you can do besides not saying anything at all. As a council member too, I’ll often get emails or phone calls from people that think that I’m responsible for something that’s more of a federal government issue versus a city issue, and you need to do the same thing. Explain to them, “Hey, I’m glad that you’re super interested in this. I want to direct you to this person or this organization.” Or, “Tell me more about your idea. Maybe there is something that we can partner with on the actual agency that handles this.” So, I always feel like you’ve got to keep the communication chain open.
Right. Kira, can you squeeze in a couple more? I’m happy to hang out a bit if it [crosstalk 01:01:16]-
Of course, yes.
… some of the questions people have.
Yeah, for sure. Okay. If you’re happy to stay, we’ll take some more questions.
Yeah, that’s fine. Sure.
The next one has to do with admissions. When enrolling new students, how important is prior job experience? Is there any experience you hate seeing on the admissions form, and why?
Anything I hate seeing on there? That’s interesting. Prior job experience in PR is not required to be successful in our program. As I mentioned, we have a mixture of students. We get recent undergraduates, career changes with no relevant PR experience at all, mid-career professionals, and international students who come to us from all over the world. So, it is not something that is required to be successful in our program to have prior PR experience. Sometimes it’s not even… We have to unlearn some bad habits. So, there’s no hindrance there.
I suppose the only thing I hate… That’s [inaudible 01:02:18] question… is when somebody takes their resume and tries to make it something it’s not. If you worked as a bartender or a waitress when you were in college, that’s fine. Don’t try to blow it up into some customer service interaction kind of… You were a bartender, you were a waitress. There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t try to make it something it isn’t. Don’t overdo it. Just say, “This is what I did. This is what I did while I was in school. In between jobs, I did this.” Fine. Don’t get caught up in trying to enhance yourself because it only tends to undermine competence and other things on your resume. Next question, please.
Great. The next one has to do with admissions as well. Do you accept transfer credits from other institutions, universities?
Yes. That has to be at the graduate level. It can’t have been used to get another degree. So, if you started a graduate degree at another school and circumstances were such that you had to stop for a while, there’s time limits to this, but yes, we would apply that assuming the grade is a B or higher. That would then reduce the amount of credits you have to take with us.
Okay. Next question is for Susan, her and Larry as well. Professor Parnell, if you want to chime in, how do you get more people of color in the chain of leadership in the communications world to be the spokesperson for the same companies who want social change and equity?
Good question. Susan, you start.
Susan J. West:
[inaudible 01:03:46] question. With King County, the county that Seattle is in, I think they’re a wonderful case study in this with their outreach to communities and nonprofits, and bringing in diversity. So, we have all perspectives. We have a better understanding of different lifestyles, and lives, and barriers. King County has brought in so much diversity into the communications team. It has helped tremendously in informing our messaging and building trust with the community because we have people that understand the challenges that others are facing, and the hardships, and the lack of justice. They’re an amazing example.
Also, the Association for Justice as well has a very strong diverse group of communicators. So, the outreach that King County did, it was just amazing. I was thrilled to be a part of that.
Very quickly, let me say two things. One, we’re pleased that both our online and on-campus programs are extremely diverse. We’re probably in excess of 25 to 30%. We do a lot of outreach to HBCUs. We have special programs, scholarships. I think we support people of color coming into this profession because it represents such a great opportunity.
At the corporate and agency level and at government level, I think there is much more work to be done. People need to see people they can relate to dealing with problems and challenges in society. Because as Susan indicates, it’s hard for me to engage with you if I don’t think you understand where I’m coming from based on my background experience. It informs our communications planning and strategies if we have a better understanding of how different ethnic groups of individuals use and interact with the media, and we make assumptions based on our own experience that we may find are not the best way to go forward.
So, there’s work to be done. I’m working with a number of people in this regard. Our program is trying to produce as many bright, young or mid-career professionals who are equipped to be successful, but we have a lot of work to do. One more, Kira.
Yeah, let’s have maybe two more real quick, and then we’ll close out.
Okay, two more. Why not? Sure.
This is a lengthy question, but I think it’s important to ask. So, good communication PR is anchored in the pendants of democracy, and Western countries have perfected this. So, a member of our audience is
from Kenya in a continent Africa where these tenants of democracy and rule of law are not observed diligently. How can the communications practitioners in this part of the world have a positive and real impact, especially on addressing matters of social justice, human rights abuses, and impunity by the various state apparatus? Professor Parnell [crosstalk 01:06:55]?
That’s a doctoral thesis right there. But let me say, one of the interesting things, and Susan mentioned this earlier, is that social media has democratized the process of communication. Sometimes what we as communicators have to do is go around governments. Corporations and nonprofits have to go around governments because for reasons having to do with personal interest or political beliefs, they’re not supportive of what we think needs to be done. So, I think that that is sometimes an issue.
If the question has to do with how the government communicators deal with that, then I think that’s a bigger systemic issue that we can’t really get into in detail today, except to say that you have to keep trying to do what we do better, smarter, more fairly, and more equitably, not withstanding the fact that there are institutionalized courses trying to restrict your ability to do that. This comes down to personal ethics and a belief in doing the right thing. At some point in time, you may find yourself unable to do it anymore, but for as long as you’re there, and active…
Countries around the world are moving much quicker towards free and open societies in part because of the availability and the access to communication information that social media presents. Even if you’re talking about a controlled communications environment like China and other parts of the world where often they shut down the internet, people find a way to get the truth. So, we have to keep putting it out there and keep trying to make the right thing happen. Otherwise, being complacent is not an option as far as I’m concerned, but it is challenged. No question about it. Next question, Kira, last one.
Okay. The final one now, this has to do with a current pandemic. What advice do you have for someone that works in the PR field and was laid off due to the economic constraints associated with COVID-19? Professor Parnell and-
I’ll talk about that briefly, and then ask you, Susan, to chime in from your perspective out there in the private sector. I think that what I tell people all the time who ask me a question about this, regardless of the circumstance, is that the most important thing to do is to continue to stay active in some way, shape, or form practicing your craft of communications. Even if it means volunteering for a nonprofit organization or some arts group where you redesign a website, or do media outreach for them.
So that when you get that job interview and somebody says, “Okay, what have you been doing since you were laid off by XYZ company?” You say, “Looking for a job,” where do you go with that in the interview? There’s nothing talk about. If you say, “Because I’m committed to this issue, whatever it is, or concerned about this situation, whatever it might be, COVID being one of them, I’ve been involved in working with an equal justice organization or access to community healthcare, or organized a website, or I’ve done a media awareness program for minority children who are not well-served in dealing with technology needs with distance learning.
So, anything you can do so when you have a conversation with a recruiter, you can say… or hiring manager… “This is the business I’m in, and this is what I want to do. Just because I’m not being
paid right now, doesn’t mean I’m still not doing it.” That shows passion, and commitment, and energy, not just, “I got laid off, help me out.” That’s a very limiting… I’m a denigrating what this person is saying by way of their question, I’m advising you, don’t stop doing what you do and want to do, because it’s much better to have that to talk about in an interview than you say, “I’m not at work, help me out.” Susan, do you have any thoughts to add on that?
Susan J. West:
Oh, absolutely. I’ve lost my job before. I’ve been laid off during-
Susan J. West:
Yeah, during a financial issue with a previous company a while back. Obviously, it was devastating. It was financially an enormous hardship, but what my husband and I talked about was exactly what you just said, Professor Parnell. We decided that I was going to continue moving forward. I was going to continue my education. I was going to continue finding ways to keep active in the industry. So, I ended up volunteering and doing different types of PR volunteer work. That helped me build my portfolio. So, I know exactly how it feels to lose a job, especially unexpectedly. You walk in the door and they’re like, “Sorry, we have to do massive cutbacks.”
But, this is what I’ve told other colleagues too who’ve lost their jobs recently and in the past, is exactly what Professor Parnell said, turn this into, as hard as it may be and feel, into an opportunity to reach out to different organizations and say, “I just want to volunteer and help with your communications, your PR, whatever it may be. I could help write a plan for your communications plan. I could help you with social media. What can I do to help you? I could do some event planning that does team building.” Stay active and use this time as an opportunity. Again, I know it’s painful, but it will pay off.
It shows, too, your ambition, and it shows you’re not going to give up. You’re not going to let this stop you from being a public relations person and getting your next job.
Okay, Kira, why don’t you wrap up? Thank you, everyone, for your time today.
Yes, absolutely. Thank you, Susan and Professor Parnell, for sharing these very important remarks, especially during this very challenging time for all of us, and providing us with really great takeaways. And to our audience for spending what’s intended as an hour, it’s now gone over. So, I really appreciate you reserving the time today to join us and provide many, many questions. To those that we were not
able to get through your questions this time around, we will have team members reaching out to you. So, those great questions will be answered.
Just so you know, we are accepting applications, once again, for the fall, and actually looking forward to working with you. Thank you so much for considering the George Washington’s award-winning master’s degree in strategic public relations program. We look forward to welcoming you. Once again, to our panelists, Professor Parnell, Ms. Susan J. West for spending the time with us, and to our audience, for joining us. Have a great day. Take care and stay safe, everyone.
Stay safe, everybody. Take care. Bye.