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Public Relations Class Learns From Crisis Communications Professionals

It’s not every semester students in Professor Robin Bisha’s Introduction to Public Relations class can learn about crisis communications during a global pandemic. Just before spring break in mid-March, Bisha finished a unit on reputation management. It was during that time she also began seeing regular messages from TLU and government agencies and began getting questions from some students about COVID-19.

“The day the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I was excited about the opportunity my students would have to analyze communication in a real crisis,” she said.

However, she admits that feeling lasted for about 19 seconds, before she came back to the realization of the danger facing everyone.

“Our last PR class meeting before break took place on the day after the WHO pandemic declaration,” she said. “We parted with sadness and uncertainty, not knowing what was going to be happening in the weeks to come or when we would see each other again. As students left campus for break, I suggested to them that they pay attention to the way leaders of the country, state, counties, municipalities, and organizations they participate in communicate about the pandemic and to be ready to analyze anything they heard about the responses to the virus.”

After an April message from TLU President Debbie Cottrell announcing that the university would conduct the rest of spring 2020 courses online, Bisha knew there were some really unique opportunities to hear from industry professionals who were overseeing crisis communication in real time.

“We talked about specific examples in our Zoom classes, including having a visit from Sarah Story, TLU's vice president for admissions and marketing, Alec Voss of Whole Foods, and Teanna Totten of Red Fan Communications,” Bisha said. “I was excited for the students to have the opportunity to talk with people who are communicating on behalf of their organizations and clients in the pandemic. This adds so much to the students' ability to recognize the value of what they have read in books and heard from me. One students got some great advice on a situation she faces at work. Her employer doesn't have enough masks to satisfy orders. My student needs to help customers deal with delays and shortages and she had a great opportunity to ask a communications person for a grocery chain that question.”

The students are currently completing their crisis communication assignment as they prepare for final exams.

“In addition to questions that get at their understanding of the book we read, ‘Chief Crisis Officer,’ I asked them to select one public figure who is communicating in a way that helps the target audience cope better with the pandemic and one who is hindering,” she said. “I can't wait to read their answers. I know I can't expect students to get as excited about this as I am, but they are getting a much better case to study than the simulation assignment I usually do for this unit.”

As for final exams during quarantine, Bisha said she has developed courses that are not direct building blocks for the next level of a discipline she actually has lot of flexibility in this area.

She’s shifted almost all of her classes to a reflection format where students are asked to answer things like: How is this material likely to be valuable to you in the future or What are three things you will take away from this course? Her goals is for students to think about the course in a collective way.

However, she admits the course that required the most revisioning was senior thesis.

“Students are normally expected to present serious academic research papers in English and Communication Studies to the whole faculty of our department,” she said. “The presentations are given an exacting review according to a rubric we have developed over more than 15 years. We could not come together and most of the students had never received any training in making presentations in video form, so we gave them the opportunity to submit a printed paper or a video presentation. Next year, my students will be receiving instruction in how to make an effective online presentation as a matter of course. This was on my mind before the pandemic. Now, I've seen just how vital this skill set is to people in any field of endeavor.”