By Rose Bauer and members of COM 107-F1
Working in her office in the New Jersey Statehouse, Jayne O’Connor, who was handling public relations for then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, was faced with a reporter throwing down a newspaper and demanding a comment from the governor.
“I open it up and there is a wonderful photo of Gov. Whitman frisking a black man in Camden,” O’Connor said.
It was in 1996 that the incident had occurred during a ride-along with state police in which the governor was doing everything they did. The moment in the photo, however, looked racist to some. Four years later, in 2000, the photo hit the newspapers and shook the public’s opinion of Whitman, just as the governor was positioning herself for a role in President George W. Bush’s administration. O’Connor, acting in a quick manner, was able to help Whitman admit her mistake, tell the truth and apologize to maintain her positive reputation. She was successful in getting a position in Bush’s cabinet.
O’Connor, now division director of Strategic Marketing and Communications at Capital Health, was one of the guest speakers at the Crisis Communication and Public Relations Panel on March 31, presented by Rider University’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). Other speakers included Ken Hunter, president and chief strategist of The PowerStation Communications; John Kouten, chief executive officer of JFK Communications Inc.; and Rider alumnus Kevin Friedlander, vice president and corporate communications manager at Wells Fargo.
The frisking incident was an example of a public relations crisis. “It was something completely unexpected and a very difficult topic,” O’Connor said. “We’ve all been in situations where you have to discuss a very difficult issue with your CEO and it’s uncomfortable.”
Hunter agreed that public relations professionals must keep in mind that even if reparations are made, an image can suffer.
“In PR, we are really focused on that longtime operation and longtime reputation,” said Hunter. “Maybe in the lawsuit you were able to keep your mouths shut, and you dropped it from $10 million to $1 million, but now all your customers have left.
“If you are not telling your story, your competitors are coming in and telling it.”
Along with examples of crises, the speakers emphasized the need for organizations to have crisis plans. To be ahead of the game, companies should drill their employees, using examples of potential crises. Such crisis communication plans help employees know what to do when someone is absent, keep the CEO from getting tongue-tied and create a culture of people who will speak to the media.
“Creating a plan to deal with crises and issues and risks within an organization is kind of your opportunity to counsel your organization about the things that most likely will happen and, depending on a variety of scenarios, who is going to deal with it first and what are they going to say,” said Kouten.
The panel also offered suggestions for future public relations graduates. The advice that the panel gave about going into crisis communication was mixed. It is constant work and no fame, and they all agreed the job is scary in the beginning.
“It is a non-stop arise of issues, and you just have to love to deal with those constant crises, no matter how big or small,” said Friedlander. “You just have to go with the flow.”
O’Connor added, “If it’s the right field for you, you’ll gravitate towards it naturally. And if it is for you, you’ll love it.”
The speakers stayed after the event to network with students. They were glad to discuss what they do every day. Many attendees enjoyed the dialogue and felt like they learned something new.
“When I was at Rider, we didn’t have a PRSSA,” said Stephanie Ahenkora, ’12 , who is currently a communications consultant for Wells Fargo. “This was great. I wish we had more time for questions.”