Mock disaster teaches PR students how to deal with crises



    At PRSSA’s regional conference, public relations students got a sample of a real world experience.

    PR students were submitted to a constructed scenario where they were forced to deal with killings, hostage negotiations and a zealous news media.

    This was part of the active crisis training, which was the theme of the PRSSA conference.

    Jim Wall, an executive of the Denver Post, opened the activity speaking about the media’s response to the Columbine shootings.

    “The media did not do very well,” said Wall about the media’s dealings with Columbine.

    The crisis scenario was designed to help the PR students deal with such situations like Columbine, said Rich Long, advisor to PRSSA and professor of communications.

    The crisis scenario involved a college symposium where a controversial speaker is taken hostage. In the process, one student is killed and several are wounded. The students had to play the role of the PR agency of the university.

    Kevin Franson, a public relations major from Highland, Utah, said he appreciated the activity. “The opportunity to go through something that is close to the real world without actually being there and feel the heat once is a good experience,” he said.

    Wall said that the Denver Post paid for counseling sessions for some of their reporters who reported on Columbine, showing the impact that such disasters have on reporters.

    “You read about a Columbine and you try to imagine what it would be like, but there is no real way to simulate such a disaster,” said Long. However, he said the simulation is a start for preparing the students for shaky situations.

    “I liked that fact that we were able to take what we learned in PR classes and apply it,” said Christina Broadbent, a PR major for Houston.

    The students created crisis response plans in order to deal with the scenario. Wall said that the Denver Post did not have a plan when the Columbine shootings took place, and even now they still do not have one.

    Wall gave advice to the students for dealing with the ethical issues involved with reporting disasters. “You must tell yourself, it’s not about the money,” Wall said.

    He explained that it is very easy to cross the line on what is ethical. “The line is getting closer and closer and grayer and grayer,” said Wall.

    In crisis situations it is very “seductive” to run sensational stories, said Wall. In the heat of a crisis it is hard to see how the public is affected he said. Wall suggested that it is better to err on the side of protecting the public.

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