Be Calm and Stay Focused: The Student Perspective of Crisis Communications

By: Ivan Hernandez, Director of Outreach & Affairs, Quotes, UCF’s PR Club

I look back at the events that have come up during my own life, and I shudder at the fact that in less than 20 years, major crises have occurred. From the side effects of hurricane Katrina, or the tragedy of 9/11, it’s important for students aiming to become PR professionals to realize that handling a crisis is a part of the job description. However, between what students may see on popular shows like Sex and the City or movies that depict public relations to be a career that simply talks to the media, it’s easy to forget what the true industry of public relations involves and requires. Yes, it’s fair to say that the industry is full of wonderful opportunities, but it is not always as glamorous as popular culture has it portrayed. I realized this fact at the June workshop hosted by the Florida Public Relations Association Orlando Area Chapter. The topic discussed? Crisis communications.

As a student, crisis communications is a sector of public relations that always tends to slip my mind – a habit that I realize now, needs to be broken. A crisis can happen any day at any given moment. I know that if I want to be successful in this industry, I need to be aware that there is always the possibility of being met face-to-face with an unfortunate situation which may require timely and accurate communication. With this in mind, I knew that this FPRA workshop would be beneficial in developing my PR skills. I became even more excited for the event when I learned that program speaker was Susan Vernon-Devlin of Massey Communications, a PR professional who goes into work knowing that managing a crisis is just another part of the work day.

Before this workshop, I didn’t know what my role as an intern would be in the event of a crisis. Coming out of it I learned that it doesn’t matter what your job description is, rather that everyone remembers their role on the team. From the smallest to the more pressing tasks, every person on the team needs to do their part in order for everyone to ride the storm out as peacefully as possible. I learned it’s important to stay informed with the facts rather than to believe any rumor that may be circulating in the area. Susan mentioned that as PR professionals, we know how to fake confidence but one can never fake competence. Knowledge is power and when combined with sincerity, it can lead a company to success in a time of crisis. It is imperative that as a member of the team, one must be quick to respond, honest in their answers, and crafted against manipulation.

Once all has been resolved, Susan gave us suggestions as far as what to do post-crisis. The first point she made is to maintain and rebuild relationships. Another point she made is to gather everyone and assess the communications in the company. The most important note she stressed was to never assume that the crisis won’t happen again; therefore one must always be taking the proper precautions and steps to be fully prepared for the next time.

Susan Vernon-Devlin was the perfect speaker for the workshop, and it was a pleasure to hear her points for success in an area as sensitive as crisis communication. As a student, the education I received in the few hours of the event is priceless and I feel more prepared to enter this industry.  So to my fellow students and PR hopefuls, I ask you to remember the mantra: “Be calm, stay focused and do your job. Everyone has a role, even interns.”

Katarina Dos Santos, Susan Vernon-Devlin, Nathalie Almonte, and Ivan Hernandez

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