Issues Management and Crisis Management in a Digital World

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Date: November 11, 2015
Time: 12:00 pm EST

This webinar focuses particularly on how social media spreads and/or creates a crisis. How social media can be a tool to manage crisis more effectively. Professor Parnell also provides case studies that identify the best practices that might apply when facing or preparing for a crisis.

Speaker: Prof. Lawrence J. Parnell, Associate Professor and Program Director
Bio: Professor Parnell is an Associate Professor and Director of The George Washington University Master’s in Strategic PR program in Washington, DC. GW offers both an on campus and online Master’s degree with more than 130 students currently enrolled. The program graduated its first cohort of students in May 2009.

Previously, over a 30-year career, Professor Parnell has held senior communications positions in consulting, on the client side and in politics. He was named PR Professional of the Year (2003) by PR Week magazine and he was inducted into the PR News Hall of Fame in 2009.

Professor Parnell’s previous corporate experience includes senior positions at Barrick Gold, Ernst & Young LLP, GTE Corporation; People’s Bank of Connecticut and The Stop & Shop Companies, Inc. His consulting experience includes senior roles at Hill & Knowlton, Ketchum; Gavin Andersen & Co. Inc. and Manning Selvage & Lee. His governmental and political experience includes staff communications positions with the Mayor of Atlanta; Carter for President campaign; the Attorney General of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.

He holds an MBA from the University of New Haven; and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University.


[Start of recorded material] [00:00:00]

Kira: Hi everyone and welcome to our webinar on the topic of issues management and crisis management in a digital world. Today we’ll get to hear from the George Washington University, the program director of our online masters in strategic public relations program. My name is Kira and I will be your moderator.

I know everyone is excited to hear from our featured speakers so let’s go over the logistics of today’s event. Please note our participants’ conference lines are currently placed on mute or listen only mode to ensure a smoother line of communication as this presentation is being recorded for later viewing. To communicate with me please type your message to me via the chat box, it’s the roundish bubble that lights up when activated.

There will be a great opportunity to have your questions answered by our featured speaker during the Q&A segment so please don’t hesitate to send your questions over to me via the chat box even while the presentations in progress. If we’re not able to get through all of your questions within the hour we will be sure to get in touch with you after our event. Also our wonderful enrollment advisor Marie Alouche will be happy to follow up with you at a later time on any program related questions.

Now let’s introduce you to our speaker professor Lawrence Parnell but you many also call him Larry. Professor Parnell is an Associate Professor and Director of The George Washington University Master’s in Strategic PR program in Washington, DC. GW offers both an on campus and online Master’s degree with more than 130 students currently enrolled. The program graduated its first cohort of students in May 2009.

Previously, over a 30-year career, Professor Parnell has held senior communications positions in consulting, on the client side and in politics. He was named PR Professional of the Year (2003) by PR Week magazine and he was inducted into the PR News Hall of Fame in 2009.

Professor Parnell’s previous corporate experience includes senior positions at Barrick Gold, Ernst & Young LLP, GTE Corporation; People’s Bank of Connecticut and The Stop & Shop Companies, Inc. His consulting experience includes senior roles at Hill & Knowlton, Ketchum; Gavin Andersen & Co. Inc. and Manning Selvage & Lee. His governmental and political experience includes staff communications positions with the Mayor of Atlanta; Carter for President campaign; the Attorney General of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.

He holds an MBA from the University of New Haven; and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. Welcome Professor Parnell.

Lawrence P: Thank you Kira for that introduction, I hope I can live up to all that. So, what we’re going to do today is two things. We’re going to talk about issues management, issues in crisis management and there’s a distinct difference there and define the terms. Then we’re going to introduce and discuss the role social media has had on those two categories. And then we’ll have a brief overview of our program and then take your questions about the presentation or the program as time allows. So, that is the agenda for our talk today.

Let me give right into it. Let’s begin I think it’s important to sort of define our terms before we discuss them. Our view with The George Washington University is consistent with that of the Public Relations Society of America, that public relations is best defined as a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and the public. That’s how we operate, that’s the focus of our program on a going forward basis.

Looking at public relations we see it as a strategic management function, in other words we’re talking about an developing in our program, opportunities for our students to become managers and senior strategic advisors, not just necessarily mechanics if you will who provide tactical support. And that really involves counselling, management, a lot of work is time spent on analyzing and interpreting what’s going on in the public arena and how that affects the organization and then conducting campaigns to address those issues. That is our underlying philosophy.

So, issues management as distinct from crisis management is important to talk about here. The main thing that I want to say about issues management as noted in the slide is that it’s anticipatory. It looks out at the horizon, it looks out at the public, it examines the corporation’s focus or an organization’s or a client’s issues and challenges and identifies them as something they need to be responded to and dealt with before they become a crisis. So, issues management is proactive in that regard. It is not crisis management that we’re going to talk about in just a few minutes.

Let’s define then crisis management. Crisis by definition and this is according to the Institution for Public Relations, which is a free website by the way with fantastic information and research and studies that I would recommend to all of you. And that is their view is that a crisis is something that has a significant, specific threat to the operations of an organization or a company or a political candidate that can have negative consequences if it’s not handled. And in that the threat can take the form of damage to the organization, its products and services, its stakeholders, be that if employees or its customers and in industry. And typically there are three types of threats that need to be addressed here, public safety, financial loss and reputation loss.

Now in this category there is a difference between crisis management in a disaster situation where there’s been a flood or an explosion or a crash and crisis management in the context of a problem caused by activities or problems inside of an organization. So, we’re not talking about natural disasters here necessarily, we’re talking about manmade if you will crisis situations. And again I would refer you to the Institute for Public Relations; the link is noted there on the bottom of the slide.

So, next let’s say – by the way we brought this up because we were excited that just recently a couple of weekends ago on November 1st, the Washington Post did a story on how Washington D.C has become a sort of a hotspot for understanding and managing crisis and issues management. Driven perhaps by the perception and the success of the Scandal public relations, the Sandal television show starring Kerry Washington, which some of you may know is based on a real person whose name is Judy Smith who by the way is a GW alum. And while it’s glamorized and dramatized and high fashion and all that sort of stuff, there is an element in there of truth. So, the Washington Post approached us some time ago and looked into how we approach crisis and issues management and wrote this article, which I suggest you take a look at ’cause it goes into the details of our program and others here in town.

Okay so, let’s look at the next slide. So, talking about crisis management there are three distinct phases and we’re going to get into social media and its impact. But first I want to walk through our views about crisis management. So, there’s the pre-crisis phase, there is the crisis response and there is the post crisis phase. In the pre-crisis phase is where you are concerned with prevention and preparation. This is a little bit of issues management and also what you hear a lot of people talking about crisis drills and having a handbook and making sure you’re phone numbers and lists and contact people and standby statements all that sort of stuff happens in the pre-crisis phase.

In the crisis response is when you’re in the fire, when you are trying to deal with the issue and manage your way through it. And the next phase probably one of the most important and I would say in many cases, the most overlooked elements of crisis management is the post crisis phase. And that is twofold, it is an opportunity, the tendency of human nature being that it is the tendency is when the crisis is over, there’s a general relaxation, people wipe their brow, whew, that’s over with, good and they move on.

And that’s a missed opportunity. What you want to do is that state is you want to fairly soon after have an after action kind of program if you will. What happened? What worked? What didn’t work? What did we learn? How can we improve? How can we be more responsive? Update, fresh, flush out your crisis planning and your crisis response program. Number one, number two, you need to fulfill the commitments you made during the crisis phase. Very often company executives, organization executives will say we’re going to give everybody in the case of let’s say a hack of a credit card profile. They’re going to give everybody free credit identity prevention, theft prevention materials. You better make sure you do that. You have to follow through and make sure that happens. If you find out there is a hole in your firewall, there is a problem in your operations, for example if you are a manufacturer and your supply chain goes all the way back to factories in developing countries that don’t pay well, that don’t have safe and secure facilities for the employees, those need to be fixed. You’ve made the commitment to do that but you need to follow up and do that because it will become a crisis again. So, post crisis is very important and usually something that people tend to overlook because they’re so glad the crisis is over and they want to go back to business as usual. Big mistake if you do that.

So, the other thing to think about here why this is important and why so many people find it intriguing, and that is there is not only the element of doing it well but research has indicated over the past few years there’s a lot of studies that’s been done that while the details of a given crisis fade, people don’t remember the particulars of what happened on which day and who said what to who etc. But they have a general feeling about how the company conducted itself, good or bad. And that lasts much longer than the details in the public mind because there are unfortunately so many things going on that people sort of move onto the next problem. But a bad job or a good job people remember.

And there are examples outside it here. People still talk about Johnson & Johnson the Tylenol case, which happened 40 plus years ago. More recently the Boston police department and handling the marathon bombing, which had a very strong social media component to it is regarded as being an outstanding example of crisis management. And clearly we all know the ones that didn’t work. Two are mentioned here, Exxon Valdez people still remember and we’re still hearing about Deep Water Horizon and they’ve been attached to the brand. And the companies are stuck with this because they did not manage it well, they did not follow through or they did not do something along the way to give the public any confidence it’s not going to happen again.

So, having said that sort of overview let’s talk about how social media has added to the drama and the excitement of crisis management, issues in crisis management. I think it’s important to consider the following, that in a crisis situation the social media has many different roles to play but it’s summed up here in these three. It can create a crisis.

Look at the example going on right now with Starbucks and the red cup. So, one guy has gotten upset about his perception that Starbucks is not pro Christmas because they took, what he perceived to be supportive materials off the – and it created a whole mini crisis if you want to call it that for Starbucks to deal with. Or Dominos Pizza posted by the employees misbehaving and then that became – so, social media can instigate a crisis, it can accelerate the crisis in the sense that as something moves to the social media platform and everybody else starts chiming in and pumping up the volume, it adds to the drama, it adds to the pressure, it adds to the impact of the thing. It may take it beyond the one platform it was one to become a public crisis because the media is watching this and looking for a new story.

Importantly though social media can also act as an extinguisher. If you do it properly you manage your social media platforms well, you monitor what’s being said, you respond appropriately, you can so called put the fire out or at least contain the fire by using social media properly.

So, let’s talk some more about that. In a crisis situation some things to be concerned about with social media is that it adds a lot of complexity. It takes what’s already a dramatic and emotional and draining experience and turns up the volume and turns up the pressure. Why? Well, because there are multiple channels. There’s not just the mainstream media. There is any number of platforms that people are going to go on and talk about and dramatize and extend the crisis. Unlike historically the user controls the social media platforms. Whosever post it is on Facebook, whosever Twitter handle it is, whosever on Instagram with photos and other activities, they have control of what is being said, not the company. This is a very difficult thing and it’s gotten better as we’ve gotten more used to this. But it’s a very difficult thing for senior management and clients to understand that they do not control the message. They do not control what is being said. They can only participate in the process and try to make sure their points are heard.

Social media is adding complexity in the concept that there is direct access to the audience both good and bad. Volkswagen most recently posted a very thorough and highly effective letter to its owners on what happened and taking responsibility for the emissions control software fiasco that was going on and were able to communicate that message directly to people who are owners and purchasers and potential purchasers of their products.

Social media adds complexity in the concept that it’s real time delivery, there is no delay, there is no interim agent. You put out a statement, everybody sees it right then, right now. That’s good and that’s bad. You have to make sure what you say is factual and accurate and can stand the test of time even though you have no time to actually post it.

Finally, there are no filters. Anyone can say anything they want. And I just was looking at some of the Twitter activity and Facebook activity around some of this Starbucks thing for example. People are having fun with it, and that’s okay, but they’re also adding all kinds of, you know, self interpretations to what is going on and their views of is Starbucks really anti-Christmas, anti-Jesus Christ etc.

Dominos and the employees posting the video created a lot of discussion and people come up with memes and their own videos and they send it. So, that – people can say whatever they want on social media and all you can really do is respond to it. But you must monitor, we’ll talk about that in just a minute.

From an issue’s management perspective, to jump back social media has tremendous value for you because it is a source of advance warning. If you are in fact accurately and thoroughly managing and monitoring what was going on your own platforms and the key platforms what you know your customers and friends, voters are, then you see things coming and you can prepare for them. There are things you obviously don’t know about, like somebody deciding that the Starbucks red cup is anti-Christmas. That is something nobody would anticipate. But as you see maybe a current of discussion maybe going on around the topic, you are in a position to give your management advice and start coming up with materials to respond to that. It provides you a heads up basically if you were paying attention to what’s going on.

Also if you are in an advocacy situation where you’re trying to build awareness or offset legislation of other activities you can – social media is a very – well, worthwhile tactic in building grassroots programs, legitimate grassroots programs. Be careful you don’t get caught putting up what people call astro-turfing, which as the name implies is fake grassroots, where you create a coalition that doesn’t exist and then have them say things you want to have said. That doesn’t work. But legitimate activities on social media can be very useful in generating community support for imitative or an issue you want people to be aware of.

And also as you see things being discussed, as I mentioned before, you’re in a position to diffuse or offset a position before it becomes a crisis by clarifying confusions that people may have that would have morphed into a crisis had you not seen that it was developing online.

So, in terms of managing a crisis situation online here’s a couple of suggestions to keep in mind. Just because it is a social media crisis or it has a social media component to it does not mean that the rest of the things you do as a communicator can be ignored or offset or finessed. You must still have credibility, you must still have candour, you must be transparent. Perhaps it matters even more because there is, there’s an opportunity for people to call you out if you’re not. Your ability to manage, to work with the media is still very important. Keep in mind not everybody that you want to talk to about your issue is going to be on the platform that you’re talking to. So, you have to think in terms of going beyond Twitter. If the story’s moved beyond Twitter or Facebook or wherever it is, you must address it with the media as well because them media will cover the story.

It’s important to note here that social media is not for all audiences. Many people that you want to reach are not going to see your stuff. There as a study done fairly recently that I mentioned here, that only 2% of your Twitter followers actually see your tweets. Think about Twitter as this fast moving river and you as person who decided to post something, put something out there, even with a hashtag, that says new product offer or clarifying your position on a key matter, most people are not going to be on that point in time, the odds of them seeing your tweet is very low, which is why one of the studies show only 2% actually see the tweets. If you use a hashtag that says new product intro or advocate for gun control or whatever your issue might be, that people might know to follow and look at, you’ll get better numbers. But still in all you’re talking about single digits.

So, you have a responsibility to talk about going beyond social media in your crisis response. And clearly without any question and not just on social media but in general, personal visibility, presence of an executive or leader of the organization talking about what happened and what you’re going to do about it. What happened, whose fault it is and how you’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again, those key things, it’s very important to your reputation and that needs to be done across all media platforms, not just social media. So, don’t get sucked into dealing with it that way solely.

So, some key steps of social media is collaborative, it’s also by the way, a lot of research around this, if you want to reach the media directly, Twitter and other things are going to be, very, very important because they’re going to follow a crisis on social media and see what people are saying about it, it gives them something to write about. It’s a way for you to reach them as well. Social media does allow you to speak directly to your stakeholders so that’s going to be an important consideration here. We’ve talked about the important of monitoring social media, before, during and after a crisis, both for early warning as well as gauging if your message is getting across and if not adjusting it to make sure that it is, that you can fine tune it.

Some other thoughts, this is a good rule of thumb I’ve heard from a number of people in the industry and in my own experience as well. If a crisis starts on social media like Facebook or Twitter, that’s where you should respond at first. If it doesn’t move beyond, in other words don’t put out a press release about a Twitter problem. Respond on Twitter ’cause that’s where the people who are following this are going to be. If it moves beyond that platform obviously you have to be more broad but don’t move the, don’t elevate the crisis by doing broadly with your response if it’s something that is Facebook based crisis for example. Don’t spread the story around.

If you are in a situation that really requires an in depth long-term response many companies make the mistake of not having something visible right on their main website if not necessarily running all of your platforms and statements and videos of your site, which may or not may be the right thing to do depending upon the scope. But you should certainly have a link. There’s a fine line. If you feel that the crisis situation is unique to North America but you think people are concerned about it, then having a small box or a link in your website that says for more information about the product recall in Washington state if you’re Chipotle for example, click here. If you’re not concerned about the product problem that Chipotle’s having in Washington State, don’t spread it all over your page and make sure everyone says oh this is something I should be worried about. So, there’s some judgment involved in there.

Clearly it should, and if it’s not on your main site, the impression that creates is that you don’t think it’s that important. So, it’s a judgment call but fundamentally you need to make it so then when people go, wherever they look for information about your company and the problem that you’re facing make sure there’s a place for them to get that information because if they don’t get it from you, they’ll take it from somebody else which may or may not be accurate.

So, in summary what I want to say to you is that issues management is anticipatory and preventative. This is the key. Many cases in my experience and working with companies, you can identify, you can probably do an inventory and say there’s 10 things that can go wrong in our company and our organization. Make a list of them, think about what they are. And then find out if you can get rid of that problem before it becomes an issue.

Another thing to keep in mind here is if you’re in an industry let’s say you’re in the apparel industry and you see that a competitor is going through a crisis situation. Your best bet is to follow that very closely and then examine yourself. ‘Cause fairly quickly after that crisis, if not in the middle of it, the media will say well let’s talk about the rest of the industry. What is happening at Nike? What’s happening at Under Armour? What’s happening at Adidas? If one company’s having a problem, is this a problem for others? So, they’re going to ask that question anyway.

But also important is from the point of view it’s an opportunity for you to ride along and learn how the media covers an issue, how it affects your industry, what customers are saying. So, simply saying I’m glad it’s not us and stepping back from it is a mistake, it’s a missed opportunity to learn something. So, don’t fall into that trap.

You can also improve your issues management by understanding how things are affecting other industries and what they do and don’t do. In other words go to school on these things. Don’t just take, you know, just say thank god it’s not us and go back to business as usual.

Crisis management as we’ve outlined is reactive and solutions oriented. You want to solve the problem that is affecting your company, your client or your organization. But as we said at the outset, make sure once you’ve solved the problem, hopefully fairly quickly and with minimal pain and suffering, that you go back and evaluate and make sure that you did everything right, that you – where could you improve and what promises did you make and are you falling through on those promises? So, that becomes an important step in affective crisis management.

Either way, social media is a key factor in both. As I mentioned it can instigate, it can accelerate or it can help put out the fire. In issues management it is an early warning system. In a crisis situation, it’s a way to respond both directly and indirectly and make sure that you are following through on everything. And then as I mentioned before in the post-mortem stage, which is a critical stage, it becomes a way for you to go back and evaluate and measure how you did because all that information is there for you to look at. Were your posts affective? Did they create more questions than they answered? Did the dialogue change? [unintelligible [00:27:27] Okay, so in wrapping up, post-mortem becomes a very important step in issues of crisis management and social media plays a really important role in both. So, we’ll pause there Kira and – oh I’m sorry I have one more thing I have to do.

So, before we get to questions let me tell you about our program. So, you understand what the options might be for you. We have both an online and on campus program. They are the exact same program, the exact same degree, there is no difference, there is no asterix, there is no problem in getting either one. Sometimes our students start online and switch to on campus or vice versa, they get deployed and have a career change, this happens. We accommodate that all the time.

The online program does include starting this year, a Washington D.C residency opportunity, not required but recommended. In the capstone class there are, let me step back and say, there are six core courses, four electives and the capstone class. That’s a total of 11 classes, 33 credits. However we made a recent change. If you have more than five years of professional experience, we wave the writing course and that shortens your program to 30 credits. That saves you money and saves you time.

And the on campus program the classes meet in the evenings and Alexandria which is just off the metro, right outside of Washington D.C, right surrounded by associations, non-profits, PR firms and corporations. We have three points of entry for the on campus program, six points of entry for the online program. Either program can be done in 24 months or less and the information there about costs. We do not require a GRE. We’ll talk about that in some more detail later.

For the on campus students we have global residencies, which students can take a one week course that is face to face so to speak. And in about nine cities around the world ranging from Hong Kong, Shanghai to Johannesburg, Solo Pollo, Mexico City, London, Brussels. You take three or four classes, three or four sessions online and then you spend a week in the country, you write a paper and that’s an elective. So, that’s an option for on campus students and we’re working to see if we can figure out a way to do that for the online students as well. But for now that’s limited to the online campus program.

I believe Kira – oh the other thing, yes I get to brag a little bit here. We’re very excited in March of this past year when our program was picked as the best PR education program graduate or under graduate for the year of 2015 by PR Week Magazine, which you may know is pretty much the basic bible of the industry. And they have an awards competition that gets – there’s all kinds of categories and there’s one for education, multiple schools applied, we were one of the five finalists and we found out they had a really wonderful ceremony in New York that we were picked as the best program. The judges are both educators and practitioners so we were essentially; our program was picked for this award by my peers and colleagues in the education and PR community. So, it meant a great deal to us and to our students.

The Washington Post article I mentioned before mentions us as one of the best PR crisis programs in the country. We’ve talked a bit about our capstone residency option in D.C. And of course the benefit of attending a school like George Washington University if of course the network of alumni, in our case over 250,000 people worldwide. And we find that as our program is now getting ready for its 10th year of operation next year, specific alumni of the SPR program both face to face and online are constantly helping each other find jobs, career opportunities, going into business with each other. And it’s been very, very gratifying to see that happen over these last 10 years.

Kira: Thank you so much Professor Parnell. So, I know there have been questions coming in from our audience and we have a full house of audience here. So, welcome everyone. I hoped you enjoyed this wonderful and very insightful and informative webinar on crisis management, which is a major component within our award winning curriculum.

So, I’d also like to go through the slide here that talks about how you can become a G.W alum. So, the admissions requirements, we are currently accepting applications for the spring terms. And to apply you would place you application, Marie Alouche is the enrollment advisor, she is very seasoned, thorough and very, very helpful and friendly, great to work with and she [assists] you throughout the process and students really do enjoy working with her. She just really makes the process easy in terms of helping you with your paperwork.

There’s an application fee of $75. There’s a statement of purpose and of course your CV or current resume. We’d like to have three letters of recommendation from your employer and official transcripts. And the benefit to this is that there is no entrance exam such as the GRE or the [G madge.] So, get in touch with Marie at the number below there, following the webinar. If you have any question about the program about the application itself or the requirements.

And also upcoming start dates we have January 11th, 2016 and for the next start is also March 7th. Now the spring 2 start date is only available to online students. For spring 1 and spring 2 it’s available for both campus as well as online students. So, do contact Marie Alouche today.

So, I hope you’ve been enjoying the webinar. We now have questions. The first question for Professor Parnell is with crisis management being very relevant in PR professional’s world today; can you talk about how our curriculum addresses that and how it’s able to allow students and graduates to get a handle on crisis management?

Lawrence P: Sure. Well, we have a dedicated course on crisis and issues management number one that is elective and almost all the students take it both on campus and online is an option. In addition, the course work really tends to be there’s an introductory course, there’s a course on writing, which is the one that we’re willing to wave for experienced professionals with more than five years experience. There is a media relations course, there is a research course. There is a course on the basics of business and finance and there’s a course on ethics.

And certainly I would say three or four of those there are group projects and case study assignments that deal with crisis management all the time. It’s what people are interested in. It does tax all of your skills. So, it’s an essential part of our curriculum. And we of course have dedicated to it specifically. In that course we talk a lot about how to manage a crisis situation and do something which is in the Washington Post article as well that it is how you flip a subject or a crisis from being something that threatens your reputation to over time actually enhances your reputation. There’s a whole methodology that we walk through and teach how to do that.

There’s lots of examples of that recently where companies have done that, Dominos in the video for example went from being a laughing stock to turning around to customers and saying we’re going to improve our product, we’re going to improve our processes. Give us your input, gives us your suggestions, give us your advice. So they flipped the issue on its head and made it something that was beneficial to their reputation.

More recently I just came from a session that a PSRA down in Atlanta where the founder and CEO of Kind, the diet nutrition bars, talked about how they got in a situation where the FDA said you can’t use the word healthy in your project packaging because of FDA requirements regarding fat. And in working on the matter with the FDA, they discovered that the difference there was a percentage of grams of fat in terms of more than one gram of fat in your product you can’t call yourself healthy, even in their case the fat comes from nuts and healthy things, which now are viewed by most people as healthy fat versus bad fat. But children cereal can describe itself as healthy even though it has all kinds of additives in it but doesn’t have fat. So, they’ve turned the issue around. They’re working with the FDA now to change the product descriptions and the federal regulations. And the net of this is going to be they benefit from having done this.

So, we talk about that whole strategy in our classes and how to accomplish that. And lead your company down that hopefully successful road.

Kira: Thank you Professor. So, the next question is from one of our audience. Can tarnished reputation be consolidated through social media for example the MTN crisis? How should the organization communicate through social media?

Lawrence P: I’m sorry, which crisis is that, the MTN?

Kira: The MTN crisis.

Lawrence P: I’m not familiar with that one off the top of my head. But it’s a question that really deals with how can social media be used to improve the company’s image post crisis? Is that the sense of the question?

Kira: Yeah.

Lawrence P: Okay. Well, as I mentioned before, the example of Dominos where the employees posted those disgusting videos of themselves on videos which became viral. Everybody started getting grossed out and didn’t want to get pizza from Dominos across the country let alone it only happened in one market. And the company turned that around by posting a video, again, what I said before about go to the platform where the problem started. And they went back to YouTube, they posted a video from the company taking responsibility for these employees actions, mentioning that this is something that is not, clearly, sanctioned or improved, totally inappropriate behaviour. The employees had been dismissed, the company was going to deal with the problem. And in the meantime was seeking input and advice on how to improve the quality of the product. So, they use social media to take the spotlight off of some stupid employees misbehaving and turn it onto to how can we come up with a better product to make you happier in doing business with us. So, that’s how social media accomplishes that.

Kira: Thank you so much. And the next question is, when you’re being talked about on social media but not on your own pages, should you answer, when should you answer? Because those accusations that are being started by others, there’s potential that they could become a crisis.

Lawrence P: I think that’s a very good question. It’s a very tough call. It depends on the nature of the comments. And the example can go from what’s happening now with Starbucks, and the nonsense about the Christmas cups, to a company like Dominos or Chipotle where there are concerns about e coli creating illness in certain locations in Washington State. The companies in both cases are responding but the question of how far and how deep you go is really an important one to do.

Certain things that are clearly someone with an agenda or someone with trying to drum up support for their stuff like this evangelic person who apparently is upset with Starbucks, you respond by saying the design reflects our goals and objectives of being inclusive or whatever it was that Starbucks issued a statement and that’s it.

So, you can’t just ignore those things. There are certain times when someone makes an outrageous claim that has no credibility and then your judgement is it catching on? Are people re-tweeting it, re-posting it? Is it getting any kind of traction? If it is then you need to respond. But if you find yourself responding to every single thing thrown against the wall, you’re going to spend all your time doing that, which is essentially what many of those people want is to distract management from running the business to spending all this time on social media.

So, there hopefully is someone in your organization that monitors social media, identifies things that are being said, determines if they have any traction or any – if people are buying into it or not and then makes a recommendation and a judgement call, this one may require a statement and others we just ignore. Because you don’t dignify everything with a response but that requires judgment and a sense of the platform you’re talking about.

Kira: Perfect. So, this question relates to the curriculum once again. I know one of the highlights of the program is that it’s practiced based. That students are able to apply every concept that they learn from the program into the real world, into the portfolio, can you provide examples on how students can actually develop these practical portfolios that can be used in the real world?

Lawrence P: Sure. Well in our writing class, which is at the outset of the program students do a series of – the professor has developed a program in which you identify a subject matter and the key is that the student chooses a topic. So, in many cases our students will do it for the companies or the organizations or client that they work for and apply it for that. So, if you have to do a media relations strategy about changing perceptions, we don’t assign you the company, you can pick any company you want. And many people will take advantage of that and do it on their own company.

But in the writing course, it begins with there’s a series of assignments, there’s a press release, there’s a op-ed, there’s a speech, there’s talking points, all of which are produced to show your knowledge of how to do those particular items, the subject matter which you choose. At the end of that you’ve got a portfolio to show your organization, your employer or perspective employer, how you would handle things that might be entailed at the job.

Similarly at the end of the program and capstone course, which I teach, among others, students then take all the two years of experience and learning that they’ve done and they product a comprehensive case study or an in depth communications action plan. And again, who they or what organization they do it on, is their own decision. We don’t assign them to write about company X. So, many students will do an action plan for an organization that they work for or want to work for and do a comprehensive plan that they can then show that organization as part of their interview and vetting process.

Others that do the case studies, do it on their own organization how they handled something or a competitor or a peer and are able to show that and share that with their management team of how we need to be better prepared to handle a crisis. And others are so fortunate enough that the case study comes together, either we enter into a competition and/or we publish it. We help them get it published someplace. So, they get the benefit of that.

The output is the work that shows your ability to handle the various things in the classroom. But we don’t assign you to do company X and that’s why I said many people do their own companies and then – especially if your company’s providing financial assistance for your degree, there’s a return on their investment right away.

Kira: Thank you professor. So, we have great questions coming in. Please continue to send over your questions through the chat box and I’ll be able to go through them. The next one is from one of our audience once again. And it’s a very good question considering that social media handles like Twitter are user based, would you say the more responsive a company is to users or consumers, [where the substantial] rapport built between the customer and company?

Lawrence P: Yes, I think that’s a very important step. Twitter provides an opportunity for you to get a pulse, whether you’re in a crisis situation or not, what your key stakeholders are thinking about and talking about. And so that requires that somebody monitor that and respond to it. And it’s as I mentioned before, in this case social media is a really good early warning system of what’s going on out there in your industry and affecting your company or your client.

So, Twitter is key to that. And responding effectively and promptly on Twitter at the right level is the right thing to do. If there is confusion in the marketplace about a product or a service or a situation, then responding and posting a link to something that provides background information, research, white papers, something on your website, a video from management, is a way to say to the market, the social medial market, are you listening? And you want to make sure they understand what is going on. So, Twitter is both an opportunity and a challenge but in this case it’s an opportunity to clarify and minimize the damage.

Kira: Thank you. Next question concerns the capstone that you mentioned professor. And one of our audience mentioned that in his previous masters program, the capstone was brutal. So, can you talk more about it? Was it one term? Is there a thesis? Do you work with a partner? What kind of collaboration and can you provide as much information as possible?

Lawrence P: Sure. We get a lot of questions about that. I think that the best description I can somewhat jokingly refer to it as a thesis with a small t. In other words it’s not as intense as a full blown thesis and has to be written, prepared, presented and defended. It is more, to me in teaching this class, it is proof that you have gathered something, you’ve learned something, you’ve elevated your skills the two years that you’ve been with us. And I often ask at the end of the class to the student when they produce their comprehensive action plan or their case study, could you have done these two years ago before you came in the program? And if they say no, I couldn’t then I know we’ve succeeded.

So, it is not a walk in the park but it is not such that it’s so onerous. And the online program traditionally, the capstone, because the classes are so short, is a group project that has its ups and downs clearly but that’s true in the real world as well. And the face to face program typically the capstone is an individual program because there are 14 weeks to do it. But as I said, it’s really your opportunity to demonstrate your grasp at the subject matter and your ability to apply it to a real world problem, which is the essence of our program.

Kira: Thank you so much. In your presentation you talked about the Volkswagen debacle. Can you analyze it and just kind of dissect what was done right, what could have been done better and the way to handle it.

Lawrence P: Well, it’s still a work in progress, but I think what we’re seeing there is a pretty aggressive, long-term policy by the company, which presumably, the communications people, weren’t covering up and weren’t aware of, to mislead the EPA on emissions. And I think that what has happened so far the company has done a pretty good job under the circumstances they were very forthright.

I think what I like about what they’ve done is that to date they have a very succinct explanation of the problem, what happened. They have – their apology both in terms of the media, and the posted letter, was unreserved, there was not I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said language, it was we’re sorry for what happened, period. Take responsibility for it and don’t – there’s not an effort to say it’s not our fault, it’s such and such.

For example years ago I was talking to someone about this at the PRSA conference who worked for Bridgestone Tire. When Bridgestone had a situation where SUV’s the tires were blowing up on people, the company said well it’s not our fault, it’s the drivers. When Toyota first had the so called sudden acceleration issue, said it’s poor driving that’s causing the accidents, not a mechanical defect. In the case of VW, there’s none of that. They said this is wrong, it’s not our fault, we’re going to fix it and most importantly in a complicated story like this, they said this is what we know. If we don’t know something else or we need to do more research then we’re going to do that.

So, it’s very important when you make statements and VW’s a good example of this so far, that you acknowledge what’s going on, you talk about what you understand to be the problem but you say there’s other things we need to work on and we’re not sure yet what they are and when they come up. And you’re basically buying confidence; hopefully trying to buy some confidence as a situation develops you’re going to be prepared to deal with it. BP did a poor job of this in the Deep Water Horizon situation. So, so far I think VW is making improvements.

One of the things I think where I’ve heard some talk where they could have done a better job, and this is important, I’m glad this question was asked now that I think about it, and that is internally. The communication inside the company are very key. And keep in mind in a retail business where your product is not sold by the company but by VW dealers and used car dealers etc. whose livelihood depends on the quality, the perceived quality, of the car, there’s been not as much effort paid to that that could have been.

Years ago you mentioned that I worked for a bank, during the banking crisis in the late, around the year 2000 or so, 2008, people don’t call up the customer service department or the public relations department if they’re concerned about the safety or the security of the bank, they ask the teller, they ask the bank manager, they ask the loan officer. And the same thing happened with VW, the go into the dealership and say what’s going on? And if the dealer says I don’t know, they haven’t told me anything, that’s deadly. So, I think that’s area where – and car manufacturers in general do a better job in managing crisis situations like the one that is currently facing VW.

Kira: Thank you. Can you give us some examples of the achievement of our students and graduates in the program, just to give our audience an idea of the type of students following this program?

Lawrence P: Yeah, we just had a recent outcome study that, you know, the numbers better than I do Kira, but I think that we have students there that are getting promotions within six months of the job, getting raises, advancing their careers. The data is in our marketing materials. So, from a career perspective, from and advancement perspective, from an economic perspective, they’re doing well.

I was just at the PRSA conference in Atlanta where there were 2,000 plus PR professionals and I had anywhere from five to 10 online students and a couple of face to face alums come up to me and tell me that they got a new job, they got promoted, how much the program meant to them, how they’re applying it all the time. I had a student just recently write to me, who hadn’t even finished the program yet, she’s in the capstone class and was just hired by Edelman and Frankford and they’re relying on her to manage some very complicated things based on their view that she knows what she’s doing having come from the G.W program.

So, that kind of stuff happens anecdotally all the time and as I mentioned there is a study that I’m sure you can provide people with data points on the number of people getting promotions, jobs, pay increases and new responsibilities within a short period of time or finishing our online program. So, we’ve been very gratified.

Kira: That’s a good idea. When this webinar is being recorded, I will send a link to our audience as well as your program brochure. And some of the stats that I can share with you from our recent, the graduate survey which was conducted this year, we had 48 graduates responded, representing a respond rate of 20%, which is pretty good. And they state that 90% of our graduate stated that our program helped them develop more strategic and well rounded initiatives. More than 70% of our graduates received a salary increase after completing our program and 40 said their salary increase came within six months of graduation. So, there’s some very astounding and impressive stats that –

Lawrence P: Yeah, we’re pretty proud of that. This is a program designed to help people advance in their careers. It’s not theoretical, it’s applied, hands on, how to do what we do as professionals, better, smarter, faster, more efficiently and how social media in this case drives a lot of that. So, those kinds of success numbers are very, very gratifying.

Kira: Exactly. So, we have time for a couple more questions, perhaps one more. How do you overcome poor online reviews? Either HR ones that impact the talent you can attract or product reviews that stray people from purchasing, that’s a really good question.

Lawrence P: Yeah, I think this is something that’s becoming more and more a challenge because it’s not just the media but if people do a Yelp or a Travel Advisor that criticizes a company or organization or if your product [unintelligible [00:55:11] I think it requires some investigation, it requires some outreach.

I mean South West and other companies do very well with this. They see a trend going where people are complaining about baggage service at a certain area. They look into it, find out what’s going on, report on their website or the platform where the issue was raised, that they looked into the matter and they’re going to be improving things.

So, I think what has to happen is a couple of steps. One people want to – legitimate complaints, not just fuscous nonsense, but legitimate patterns of problems and thoughtful complaints from people about your product or service. People want to know they’ve been heard, they want to know you’re looking into the matter and they want to know what you’re going to do about it. And so, in that case South West is a good example where something is going on in their system, they track it, they monitor it, they write back to the person, thank you for bringing to our attention, we’re going to look into it. They look into it and they then say we’ve changed this, we changed that based on their input and the person who posted the comment in the first place feels like they helped others, which is hopefully their motivation. And in some cases perhaps South West may provide them with some kind of a coupon to offset their negative experience. But it’s more about being listened to and then responding and driving change, which is what people want when they do that. It’s what we all want.

And if you take that mindset and respond accordingly, I think you’ll be better off. If legitimately there is a problem with your product or service, then you have a question to make operationally. Are you going to change it or are you just going to, you know, ignore it? And that’s more of a cultural and business problem. But from a communication’s perspective, listening, responding and reacting to the issue is key.

Kira: Thank you professor, that’s great advice. So, it looks like we’re coming up to the one hour mark. Thank you everyone, Professor Larry Parnell as well as all of our attendees today for taking the time from your busy day, spending your lunch with us for the hour. I really appreciate your being here and I hope the session has been beneficial, has been insightful for you as you get to know our program more and learn on the practical application of crisis management from Professor Parnell.

And if you’d like to join our fantastic network of alumni, become a G.W alum with a masters in strategic public relations program, do talk to Marie Alouche she’s accepting applications currently for the upcoming start date January as well as March.

And she can be reached at 1-888-989-7068, ext. 3382. And her email address is just there on your screen.

And I really look forward to welcoming you to the G.W family, something that’s going to stay with you for the rest of your professional P.R career. So, thank you everyone and enjoy the rest of the year and we hope to have you join us in 2016. Once again, thank you Professor Larry Parnell and good bye everyone, enjoy the rest of your day.

Lawrence P: I enjoyed it, thank you very much, bye.

Kira: Thank you.

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