Virtual Crisis Competition Fosters Students’ Planning Under Pressure

Effectively managing a crisis situation can be the ultimate challenge even for the most experienced public relations professional. So what happens when public relations students, with no practical experience in crisis communications, are forced to deal with a major crisis?

The Texas Public Relations Association recently challenged university students across Texas to compete in a first-of-its-kind crisis communication competition. Working under tight deadline pressures, 30 students from six universities competed in teams at TPRA’s Fall Leadership Day in Austin, Texas, to develop the best overall crisis plan and the best crisis-response news release. 

“This sort of competition is really good for students to demonstrate what it takes to handle whatever may come their way,” said Larry Norwood, Radford professor of journalism and media arts at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.  

Baylor University swept first-place awards for both best news release and best overall crisis plan. Students from Texas Tech University won third place for best overall plan and students from Abilene Christian University won third place for best crisis news release.

At the start of the on-site competition, students received a scenario involving a tornado hitting a fictitious Texas university campus during a packed basketball game. In the scenario, the arena takes a direct hit, resulting in multiple casualties. Students were forced to respond not only to the disaster but also to wildly inflated rumors of mass fatalities circulating on Twitter. 

Baylor’s winning crisis plan used the traditional RACE public relations planning formula with an outline built around research, action, communication and evaluation. Baylor’s plan included traditional crisis response tactics such as preparing talking points, issuing an initial statement to the media and holding a press conference but it also incorporated new technology and social media. For instance, students proposed creating an event-specific hashtag for Twitter and agreed to send updates via Twitter every seven minutes.

“I learned that under a time crunch, working as a team is the biggest thing,” said Becky Petter, one of the students on Baylor’s first-place team for best crisis plan. “The competition is great to test our skills.” 

Other students on Baylor’s winning team for best crisis plan were Colton Wright and Kristina Ballard. 

Teaching crisis communications skills

TPRA’s competition raised broader questions about how well university public relations programs are preparing students for facing crisis scenarios, which are an increasingly common fact of life for today’s communication professionals. Many public relations curriculums do not include a course dedicated to crisis communications. The 2006 report from the Commission on Public Relations Education did not include a crisis communications course in its suggested model curriculum. 

“Teaching crisis communications is imbedded across the public relations curriculum,” said Carol Perry, full-time lecturer in journalism and media arts at Baylor University, where crisis principles and drills are included in introductory public relations classes, writing classes and in senior-level experiences such as working on the school’s student-run public relations agency. 

Training students to cope with crises is a major challenge for public relations teachers.

“I think we fall short in preparing our students how to handle crises, especially in today’s media environment where practically everyone is empowered to comment online, post a video, write a blog and where any of that content can become a viral sensation,” said John G. Wirtz, assistant professor in the College of Mass Communications at Texas Tech University. 

“It takes a concerted effort to talk about responding to crises, and that’s something we can do across our curriculum,” Wirtz said. 

Jacqueline Lambiase, associate professor of strategic communication in the TCU Schieffer School of Journalism, agrees that teaching about crisis communications must be done across the curriculum.

“We fit crisis communication into as many courses as we can,” Lambiase said. “I think college professors must work hard to make the study of crisis communication cohesive, so that students get both theory and practice.” 

Impact of social media on crisis planning

While students lack the maturity and experience usually expected of a crisis counselor, their native abilities with social media give them an advantage since channels such as Twitter now play such a prominent role in crisis communications.

“With today’s students, social media is another way to communicate,” said Wright, one of the students on Baylor’s team. “They don’t have landlines and don’t check e-mail. They check Twitter and Facebook—especially from their smartphones.” 

Even so, becoming competent at managing crises will take time for young professionals.

“It takes a certain amount of seasoning that comes from experience to take the lead in handling a crisis, so in that sense I don’t think students are prepared, but that’s the way it has always been,” Texas Tech’s Wirtz said. “Students have basis tools, such as the ability to write and think critically that prepare them to grow into crisis communication experts.”

Dave Hogan is a member of the board of directors for the Texas Public Relations Association and public relations instructor at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas.