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Our September luncheon was co-sponsored by the Volunteer Chapter of PRSA featuring a panel of PR and communications professionals. AMA Knoxville brings together marketing minds from Knoxville and surrounding counties for professional development, networking, and educational opportunities. The chapter also invests in future marketers by awarding scholarships to marketing students at the University of Tennessee with our Eagle Endowment. Holly recognized the AMA board of directors, volunteers, and annual sponsors (Slamdot, Colby’s Photography, Larson SMB Consulting, and HumblePod) who make these events possible.


Meet the Panelists

Dylan Jones has over 20 years of experience in strategic communications roles at leading global organizations, with extensive experience of mergers and acquisitions, corporate restructuring, strategic positioning, complex litigation, executive transitions, and industry disruption.

Prior to founding Boldsquare, a strategic communications practice, Jones was chief communications officer for Scripps Networks Interactive, the parent company of media brands including HGTV and Food Network.

Mary Ellen Miller has worked as a full-time public relations contractor to the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Boone Dam project in Kingsport, Tennessee, for the past seven years. She is an accredited public relations professional and lifelong professional communicator.

A former television news anchor for WJHL-TV in Johnson City, Tennessee, Miller has held marketing and public relations leadership positions at businesses in the Tri-Cities including Nuclear Fuel Services, Hunter, Smith & Davis law firm, and East Tennessee State University.

Gail E. Rymer is currently the principal and owner of Gail Rymer Strategic Communications in Knoxville. Prior to starting her consulting business in 2019, she worked 45 years in corporate communications for such companies as Lockheed Martin Corp. and the Tennessee Valley Authority managing multi-site communications and community relations programs.

Rymer has led organizations and teams in strategic public relations, served as press secretary, and provided communications counsel to senior management on issues ranging from environmental releases and health and safety concerns to sensitive issues such as workplace violence.


Effective Strategies for Handling a Crisis Q&A

In the current climate of instant notifications of news, fake news, and distrust of companies, business people, and politicians, PR professionals have their work cut out for them.

Combine this with some of the recent reputation management crises involving celebrities being fired from networks due to controversial statements, sexual harassment allegations, and a host of other public missteps, and it is clear that effective public relations strategies are critical for managing these situations.

Please note: questions and panelist responses are summarized

Q: It’s a broad term, but what exactly does “crisis communications” mean to each of you?

MM: There is a Chinese expression that two characters line up to make the word “crisis” – danger and opportunity. I don’t speak Chinese so I’m not sure if that’s true, but it really exemplifies what crisis communication is.

GR: Most crisis communicators deal with “fire drills” on a regular basis, whether those are true emergencies or reputational crises. When you’re faced with communicating in a crisis, processes and existing relationships (both with your network and the public) are key to make sure you are up to the challenge.

DJ: The ultimate sign of a crisis is seeing people either metaphorically or literally running out of a building. Crisis communicators are the ones running in to solve the problem and handle the situation.

Q: Thinking back on all the crises that you have handled, what has been an “A-ha!” moment where you found success? What was a failure you learned from?

DJ: Every crisis is different so you can have general crisis plans, but the reality is you’ll always need to deviate from that plan. There are too many companies who are rigid in their approach to a crisis and are too quick to make remarks. Instead, take a beat. Crisis management does require speed, but it’s worthwhile to take a moment to fully understand the situation and gather all the available information before responding. 

GR: The “a-ha” moment typically comes after the crisis when you’re reflecting on what went well and what could have gone better. Whether it’s with a team or just on your own, take a moment to reflect after each new challenge and incorporate the things you learned moving forward so that you’re continually improving. I was given three key reminders by a mentor that I would encourage everyone to keep in mind:

  • No surprises.
  • Who else needs to know?
  • Don’t listen to respond; listen to understand.

MM: General Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable” and I think that’s true in crisis communications as well. We always need to be flexible and ready to think on our feet, but planning and preparation are essential parts of the process too. 

Q: My company is in the middle of litigation over a patent and we’re pretty sure we’re going to win. What do you all think of the situation?

DJ: When you have a situation like this, you can plan for most of the potential outcomes. If you win, certainly be confident of your IP but you don’t need to make a show of it. In any messaging around this litigation, think about your end users, clients, future clients, etc… and how that communication is going to impact them.

GR: Be firm in your stance on protecting your IP but also be sympathetic with the person/company suing you. Understand that if they lose the suit, they’ll be walking away with nothing to show for their efforts. If the media is involved, you always want to make sure to be honest and back up any comments you make with facts, not taunts. 

Q: How do you manage the internal team and keep everyone on message during a crisis?

DJ: You have to accept that the reality of communication today is that everyone has an opinion and they’re going to express it. Communicate quickly and directly to your internal team and provide talking points and as many facts as possible. If you can’t get your own team on board with what you’re saying, what are your chances of getting others to believe it?

MM: Designate a few spokespeople. Have cross-functional business meetings with representatives from many areas of the company who will be impacted by a certain project or issue so that everyone stays informed.

Q: How do you as a practitioner deal with a lack of buy-in from leadership?

DJ: Leaders are generally driven by results. It’s easy to see the negative impact of poor communications so it’s important to show them the detrimental effects of their actions (or inaction.) It’s also important to find what motivates your leader and follow those routes to communicate with them.

GR: Unfortunately, sometimes leaders and management must learn the hard way about what can go wrong when they don’t follow the plan. There are plenty of horror stories out there about companies whose leadership has hurt their value due to poor communication so you can share those as a cautionary tale.

MM: It’s ideal to position yourself with leadership as a trusted counselor. At the end of the day, as Dylan mentioned, it can all come down to simple analytics and measurements that you can share with your leadership.

Q: We talk about proactivity and prevention as the best way to handle a crisis and environmental scanning is an important part of this. Have you found any environmental scanning tools or strategies that you love?

MM: Active listening to your community (sitting in on community meetings, building relationships with your neighborhood, etc…) is the best way to anticipate the future of trends and crises.

DJ: There are plenty of digital tools out there for social listening, but you have to be sure you’re ready to receive that information and act on it.

GR: I agree that listening is key, whether that’s to your audience, customers, internal team, etc… and recognizing trends in the responses you’re hearing.

Q: What are your tips for relating to the media, especially if media relations aren’t a regular part of your business and you don’t have existing relationships?

GR: Respond promptly, especially if the reporter has a deadline. Answer the questions that you can honestly and in the most effective way possible. The only way you’re going to get your position out is to provide a response – saying “no comment” in itself is showing a position. 

MM: If possible, start building those relationships with your local media. Keeping your name in front of them, especially when you can share a positive story from your company, will build rapport.

DJ: You have to build non-transactional relationships with the media; don’t just call them when you need them. A lifelong relationships with those people and companies will serve you well when you do need something from them.

Q: Are community or social media ambassadors helpful in crisis communication?

GR: Ambassadors are going to be incredible tools in helping to spread your message to the community. Whether those are community members or employees, they’re going to be your best and most trusted advocates.

Q: What are your top three pieces of advice that we should take away from this discussion?

DJ: Gather information as quickly as you can, make sure that you’ve rehearsed and prepared people to speak on your behalf, and be transparent with your audience.

GR: I’ve mentioned a few throughout the discussion, but my top takeaway would be that consistent messaging over time is key. You audience should expect to hear the same underlying message from you yesterday, today, and tomorrow.


Thanks for joining us! If you enjoyed this event, we’d love to see you at our upcoming luncheons and events including:

Keep an eye on our Eventbrite page for more information on upcoming events and to purchase your tickets.

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