PRSA 2002: Accountability Takes Center Stage


SAN FRANCISCO - Trust us - the underlying theme at PRSA's 2002 International Conference here was the need for PR to play a major role in corporate accountability. More than 3,000 attendees (including close to 2,000 PRSA members and more than 1,000 PRSSA students) gathered for four days to address "a world of change and challenge," including everything from corporate scandals to the implications of 9/11 to the increasing need to quantify the impact of PR. Here are a few conference highlights: Corporate "Trustbuster" In what was one of the conference's major themes, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairman and CEO of Carlson Cos. (owner of Radisson Hotels and T.G.I. Friday's restaurants), discussed the importance of corporate accountability in today's troubled times. Nelson cited figures showing 38 percent of Americans think big business is "the biggest threat to America." "Commerce is key to ... prosperity," Nelson said, joking that corporate scandals have given new meaning to the term "trust-busters." She advised PR pros to become deeply involved in the strategy and culture of their organizations, not just serving as a mouthpiece for executives, in order to help prevent potential scandals or malfeasance. (Nelson, 763/212- 5000) Consistent Crisis Communications ... And the Four C's What has changed for communicators post-9/11? Answers vary depending on whom you ask, but for Tim Doke, VP of corporate communications for American Airlines, and Brigadier General Ronald Rand, director of public affairs for the Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public Affairs, a whole lot is different. "We learned we weren't agile or sophisticated enough to deal with that kind of a crisis," admits Rand. He and his staff learned they needed to do everything from the very simple - implementing the kind of fire drills elementary school students regularly practice - to the more complex - instituting a series of "command messages" that go out to every public affairs officer in the Air Force every day so that every one of them has the same set of core messages to deliver to constituencies as the Secretary. The command messages have been so successful they have been imitated by the White House and other branches of the military. Tim Doke "pulled his crisis plan off the shelf, then put it back on the shelf." Nothing prepared Doke - named this year's PRSA PR Professional of the Year - and his team for the magnitude of Sept. 11 or the ensuing crises American faced. CEO Don Carty's employee communications hotline, which is well-publicized on American's corporate Web site and well-known to the press, became an important delivery method for key messages American could not share due to FBI and other investigations. After seeing the implications of Sept. 11 on organizations like Cantor Fitzgerald, Doke also is in the process of training staff in the St. Louis and London offices to take over communications should anything ever happen to cripple American's headquarters. (Rand, 703/697-6061; Doke, 817/967-3540)

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