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Accidents Happen, PR Professionals Explain

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In general, crisis response programs feature three phases: Identify the problem, develop the solution, and communicate the action to all of the public.

There have been situations in which a company went bankrupt, such as Johns Manville, and then made a comeback, in part due to efficient communications.

Other situations have been seemingly handled well by the public relations people, but the patient died. One example was the crash of Air Florida in Washington, DC and the subsequent demise of the airline, despite what appeared to be excellent execution by a very small public relations department

Robin Cohn, who was the public relations director at Air Florida, noted in pr reporter that there are three phases in an accident of this kind:

Phase I begins with the initial incident and continues for a brief period during which information is at a minimum and media clamoring at a maximum.

Phase II begins when you have the information to disseminate, at which point top management or other spokespersons should be offered to the media. And Phase III is the aftermath, when the facts are known and speculation and analysis about the cause of the problem fills the pages.

Handling Product Recalls

During the last year or two, there have been many product recalls and monumental instances of bad news involving quite a few companies.

At General Foods, problems with products are relatively rare, in spite of the enormous size of the company. But in 1985, they recalled three brands of cheeses. You probably weren't even aware of it-the recall was handled quickly, thoroughly, and with a minimum of bad news.

Another major company that has had more than its share of bad news, is Bank of America. In a speech at the Public Relations Round Table, Ronald Rhody, Senior Vice President-Corporate Communications, stated: "It seems to me there are only two schools of press relations and public information, crisis or no crisis. One is the 'take charge' school. The other is the 'sit on if school.

"The former is characterized by openness, candor, accessibility. Its postulate is: Take the initiative. Be in control of the information flow. Tell it like it is and to the widest audience possible, as rapidly as possible.

"The latter school of thought operates on the basic assumption that it's none of their business and doesn't feel compelled to reveal anything, unless forced by circumstances or law.

"Clearly, I favor the former, and I think the latter is not only deadly but dumb in today's environment In the 'take charge' mode, you have the best chance of getting the story told right, because you tell it right and you tell it first-a tactical advantage of note, because by telling it first you define the problem, you set the context, and in many cases, you preempt criticism.

"The 'sit on it' school is merely arrogant and almost always succeeds only in delaying the day of reckoning. It does so because it ignores a basic truth of corporate America: There ain't no secrets."

As Donald Stephenson of Dow Chemical Canada stated: "Perception of an impending disaster can create more public alarm than an actual catastrophe. So never underestimate the potential for damage in any situation. . .real or perceived. The media often have a vested interest in catastrophes because they make news. Reporters don't necessarily wish for one, but they are looking for signs of one in many situations. People's perception of a situation is more potent than facts. Management of public perceptions is what public relations is all about Perception is made up of emotion plus facts. Together they lead to motion-what moves people."

Where to Begin

Once you've established that you want to work in public affairs, you need to consider for whom you'd like to work. Basically, there are four types of organizations that need public affairs people: Public relations firms, corporations, non-profit organizations, and government agencies.

While most public relations firms concentrate on PR basics such as media relations, many of them-particularly the larger ones-are beginning to develop expertise in issues management, government relations, and other public affairs specialties.

In a smaller firm, you will have more contact with clients and more "hands-on" involvement in day-to-day operations, such as arranging interviews, organizing press conferences, briefing clients, etc. On the other hand, a larger firm will have entire departments dealing with specialties like broadcast public relations, issues management, graphics, or media research. So working for a larger agency would not only give you the opportunity to specialize, but also allow you to use these specialized departments as resources.

Corporate public affairs also offers opportunities to specialize-like large PR firms, most corporations have a number of different departments or divisions under

If you enjoy dealing with issues, a nonprofit organization may be the place for you to start Many of them are created primarily to promote specific issues, such as environmental protection, women's rights, or crime prevention. Others are involved in fund-raising, health care, or education. While the salaries are generally lower and the staffs smaller than in corporate public affairs, the hands-on experience and sense of commitment often compensate for the long hours and low pay.

Despite the anti-government rhetoric you often hear, big government is and will continue to be a fact of life. There are numerous opportunities at the federal, state, and local levels for public affairs specialists to work in media and community relations, public information, or other areas. For example, you will be hard-pressed to find a public official-at any level-who doesn't have a press secretary. If you are interested in working in government, a summer or part-time internship would be especially helpful.

Start Small. . .Think Big

A career in public affairs can be exciting, challenging, even glamorous...but not at the beginning.

I remember well my first public affairs experience. I was just out of college and working on a senatorial campaign. If you think that stuffing and licking envelopes at a Newark, NJ post office at midnight or passing out leaflets on a train platform at 5:30 a.m. is "glamorous," I encourage you to think again.

But I also encourage you to look beyond the tedious work, long hours, and low pay to the rewards-both tangible and intangible-that lie ahead.

In 1985,1 was responsible for publicizing a report by the American Association of Retired Persons, which concluded that more than a half million older persons would be forced into poverty if a proposed delay in that year's Social Security cost-of-living

adjustment was approved by the Congress. According to the Los Angeles Times, the

media and public attention given to the release of our report was "the single most potent weapon" used to defeat that proposal.

Helping keep a half million people out of poverty...that's what I mean by "making a difference." And believe me, you can't put a price tag on how good it makes you feel.

With more than 20 years on the staff of the 34-million-member American Association of Retired Persons, STEVEN MEHLMAN has unique experience in communicating with and about the nation's older citizens. Prior to joining AARP, he was press secretary to former U.S. Rep. Robert N. Giaimo (CT) and a reporter for the Plainfield (NJ) Courier- News.

A graduate of American University, he is a member of the Public Relations Society of America.
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