You are a military public affairs officer, and a Navy admiral has just, at an on-the-record breakfast with reporters, said possibly the worst thing ever. Asked about the rape of a Japanese girl by three American service members who abducted her in a rental car near a military base in Japan, he said: “I think it was absolutely stupid. I’ve said several times: For the price they paid to rent the car, they could have had a girl.”
Steve Manuel, then a Pentagon spokesman, could not believe the admiral, Richard C. Macke, would make such a faux pas. The rape had already incensed the Japanese so much that President Bill Clinton publicly apologized for it. More than once. Then a reporter who was at the breakfast played a tape recording of the admiral’s comments for Manuel.
“That was a really bad day,” he said.
Soon after, Macke apologized, too, and stepped down. Manuel, now a senior lecturer in public relations at Penn State University, wrote the press release announcing Macke’s resignation.
A couple of times a year, Manuel now revisits that episode in a classroom exercise he calls “the hot seat.” He gives his students the above scenario, makes them play the public affairs officer and stages a mock news conference, where he lets other students have at them.
“What are you doing about it?” he recalled a mock reporter demanding. “Why is it you need to tell a 20-year-old Marine that he’s not supposed to rape a woman or at least a 12-year-old?”
The exercise — and, in Manuel’s view, the profession of public relations in general — is not for the faint of heart. Some students in the hot seat cry and run off. One teetered on her feet, then fainted. “I’ve had them throw up,” Manuel said. “We keep a bucket up there.”
The best students stay measured and calm. They explain not only what happened, but what the military will do to rectify the issue. Manuel said the point is to show the students in his crisis communications class that delivering reassurance can be as important as delivering facts.
There was a time when a lesson like that was learned through singular experience, but after high-profile crises threatened household name brands in the 1980s, crisis communications emerged as its own specialty with the recognition that companies could do more than just hope for the best in an oil spill or widespread product tampering, said Larry Parnell, director of the strategic public relations master’s program at George Washington University.
When Manuel started teaching crisis communications a half-dozen years ago, he was part of a larger shift to take crisis communications beyond the domain of brush-up courses for professionals and make it standard curriculum at many universities, including elite graduate schools. Nationwide, advanced-degree programs in public relations — which typically include crisis communications training — have tripled from 26 to 75 between 2000 and 2011, according to the Commission on Public Relations Education.
Many of the highest-rated programs are in Washington, making it one of the country’s preeminent training grounds for scandal PR. This year, George Washington University got top honors from the trade publication PR Week, a status Georgetown University previously enjoyed three years in a row. (This year the Hoyas got an honorable mention.) Howard University and American University have been finalists. The Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Md., also trains military public affairs officers. For those already in the field, many schools have certificate programs.
The cost of polishing your strategic communications skills range from a few thousand for a professional certificate program to more than $30,000 for a master’s degree from Georgetown. Prospects for employment are good. The Washington region boasts a higher concentration of public relations specialists than the New York area. On average, they earn $97,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
There is also job security thanks to a rapidly changing media landscape where scandals — real or perceived — trend on Twitter and Facebook and consume headlines almost daily. Any gaffe — a racist comment, a poorly worded textbook, a tantruming airline executive — is now amplified by social media, where they can quickly morph from localized embarrassments into globalized causes du jour.
Crisis management has “become a higher art form,” Parnell said. And the PR industry wants the credentials to prove it and, thus, be taken more seriously. A master’s degree, he said, “goes beyond someone just being a spin artist or a flack.”
But what do you learn, exactly? And can it substitute for real-world experience?
Dan Webber likes to be ready for anything. In his Swiss Army-brand backpack, the 36-year-old executive vice president for Edelman carries a fold-up breathing mask. At his desk, he has a “go bag,” a JanSport backpack filled with essentials in case of a terrorist attack or other citywide emergency. There are Snickers bars, a multi-tool, duct tape, an emergency blanket, phone chargers and a hard copy of a city map. The shoes are so he can sprint to his daughter’s day care eight miles away. The mask he added after a woman died in a smoke-filled Metro train. And the duct tape — well, what can’t you use duct tape for?
At his job and as a crisis PR instructor at Georgetown, Webber preaches the importance of preparation.Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, whose clients have included the tobacco industry, is known for reactionary triage: swooping into Penn State University, for example, after news broke that retired football coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused children on campus. But it also creates “crisis plans,” a protocol a company can fall back on when something goes awry.
One evening, Webber tries to get the dozen students in his class to understand that anticipating a problem is half the job. You work for a fast-food chain and a photo purporting to show a deep-fried rat, allegedly served at one of your restaurants, is spreading on social media. Do you respond?
If it’s a hoax, responding may only validate it. At that point, the best strategy may be “issue monitoring.” Webber instructs his students on search engine optimization so a company’s response to a crisis might appear closer to the top of the results when someone searches Google for, say, “rat chicken nugget.” It means brainstorming key words and doing targeted ad buys, counting page views and monitoring likes and comments on Facebook posts.
That sort of nitty-gritty methodology, he says later, can be mastered in a classroom.
“There is a science and an art, and both require discipline,” Webber says. “You can teach people the discipline. You can tell them, ‘Here are the components you need to be thinking about. ... Here are the case studies.’ ”
It sounds far from the glamorous world of fictional fixer Olivia Pope, whose trademark phrase on ABC’s “Scandal” is: “It’s handled.” And that fact is not lost on the students.
“I feel like Olivia Pope is to PR what Indiana Jones is to archaeology,” says Kim Thomson, 28. “Crisis sounds exciting and sexy, but it’s not.”
And that’s a good thing. Thomson, a marketing manager for Aimco, a national apartment complex owner, says Webber has taught her that crisis PR is supposed to be dull. “You should know exactly what to do,” she says.
One thing TV and movies do get right about crisis PR is that it can be wildly unpredictable, especially in the age of Twitter. Manuel says he used to talk about the Golden Hour: the need to get your side out within the first 60 minutes of a crisis. Now, he talks about the Golden Minute. Webber tries to capture that reality with an exercise called “wheel of death,” where students reach into a bingo cage and pull out folded papers describing a sticky scenario. Typical boogeymen include disgruntled customers, rogue employees and mommy bloggers.
You are the head of PR for a carmaker when a couple accuses a family-owned franchise of racism on Yelp.
You are the head of PR for a Middle Eastern bank dogged by accusations of ties to terrorism.
Eleven days before Halloween, a woman from Grand Rapids posts on Facebook that a chocolate bar she purchased is infested with worms. From there, the crisis escalates. The Halloween mom makes a video and thousands watch it. Now the Chicago Tribune has the story. And the Associated Press.
Four students gather around desks and hatch a plan. Do they recall the product? Do they bring in outside inspectors?
“Nobody’s going to die,” one student says.
“It’s extra protein,” another jokes.
Then a development: Sales drop 30 percent. Now, the students have to rebuild the company’s reputation in time for the holiday season.
The students settle on a marketing scheme, touting the firm’s philanthropy or corporate responsibility in an attempt to erase mistakes or mishaps from consumers’ memories. Something that will gin up nostalgia for the family-owned company’s Chicago roots. Maybe a reciprocal philanthropy campaign.
“You buy our candy, we’ll donate to Toys for Tots or something,” one student suggests.
Parnell at GWU calls this maneuver The Flip. The most remarkable flips do more than just mitigate damage; they make the company better. Domino’s Pizza pulled off a legendary flip after an employee posted a video of himself blowing snot into sandwiches, rubbing a dish sponge between his butt cheeks and putting cheese up his nose. After firing the employee along with the co-worker who filmed the disgusting spectacle, the franchise used it as an opportunity to apologize to customers for the poor quality of its pizza and vowed to do better. The campaign, known as “The Pizza Turnaround,” struck a fine note between conciliatory and self-effacing. It featured television ads with snippets of focus groups trashing the food at Domino’s and chief executive J. Patrick Doyle pledging that their reformulated pizzas tasted better.
Webber teaches this case study over pizza, of course. He shows the first apology video the company posted not long after the incident, featuring Doyle, appearing upset but restrained. In the industry, it remains the gold standard of CEO apology videos.
“You sensed his anger,” Webber says. A student chimes in: “It’s how he came off so authentic.”
Webber concedes there are some things you can’t teach from a lectern. An Air Force brat, he likens the best crisis PR pros to “an elite field team or SWAT team.” “They know what they’re going to do because of the training,” he says. “But they still have to react, and those reactions only come with as many experiences as they see under their belt.”
John Lovallo, a top executive with D.C.-based crisis communications firm Levick, says one thing the classroom is not as good at preparing you for is the intensity and 24-hour pace of managing a scandal. To bridge the gap between book learning and the real world, crisis PR instructors and professionals amp up their simulations. Edelman runs them for clients, bringing in actors to play angry customers.
At the Defense Information School, instructors send their students on “missions.” One week in September, a group of students — many of them civilians in public affairs jobs on military bases — pretend to be on a Southeast Asian training mission. An earthquake strikes in the form of instructors barging into the room and stomping on the ground, banging on the walls and tossing papers around. The students are ordered to shut down their computers to simulate the power being cut.
Other calamities follow: a tsunami, a shipwreck and a downed helicopter. A roadside bomb kills a service member, and the host nation has a naval confrontation with another country. The instructors give a student a sudden illness or injury, forcing their comrades to improvise. This goes on for two days.
At the end, student Rebecca Perron, 41, who in real life is the spokeswoman for the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., faces a room full of instructors playing reporters in a news conference. She handles the questions deftly. Later, she explains her work is usually more upbeat, such as a ribbon-cutting for a veterinary clinic featuring puppies. But she came because she knows she is only one accident or misfired tweet away from PR disaster. Says Perron, “I definitely want to be prepared for the worst.” ■
Moriah Balingit is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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