Lessons Learned in High School and the Importance of Being Honest

In honor of the 2014 Snowpocalypse that is occuring, I will share with you the biggest crisis communication issue that has occurred in my life thus far, and involves a fateful day in Winter 2008 where I totaled our family’s Jeep Grand Cherokee. This was also our only vehicle equipped with 4-wheel drive, and therefore our only means of transportation during the annual spout of especially inclement weather. You can imagine how peeved my entire family was with me…

Following a week-long snowstorm in Portland, the roads looked relatively clear. My parents warned me of the black ice that was still on the streets and told me not to drive. I cannot even begin to stress how much I wish I would have listened. But in an attempt to be responsible, I went against their wishes and drove a friend who was under the influence. End result: I wrapped my beloved first car around a tree in our neighborhood.

The details of what happened are unimportant, such as the fact that I could have called a cab for my friend, but what needs to be noted is how I handled the situation after it occurred. Luckily neither my friend nor I were injured, but rather than tell my parents that I had made a mistake, apologize and admit to my wrongdoing, I tried to lie about the incident.

Needless to say, they found out what had happened – I think the pine needles littered across the roof and tree bark embedded in the paint may have given me away – and they were extremely disappointed in my integrity following the incident. My attempt to hide what had happened deteriorated a lot of the trust that I had built up in my trust bank. And it took me a very long time to rebuild what I had lost.

But what it taught me was a very important life lesson: the importance of honesty.

Ethics lie at the heart of public relations: good relationships come from establishing and maintaining trust. And although there are varying degrees of truthfulness – and the situation can dictate the amount of information necessary to disclose – there is never room for deception. Deception is an intentional act to mislead. And when I crashed my car and attempted to get away with it, I was intentionally trying to deceive my parents.

It is difficult to admit when you are wrong, or fess up to your involvement in a sticky situation. But it is far more rewarding and honorable to face the problem straight on rather than trying to disguise it. Almost always the truth will come out, and people are far less forgiving when you blatantly lie. So admit to the situation, show remorse, and apologize – and mean it.

It wouldn’t be reality if bad things never happened. But it is important to be honest when these inevitable and far-from-ideal situations occur. If you’re in need of a refresher – which I think is important from time to time – see the PRSA Code of Ethics for a list of values to strive towards.

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A constant reminder: the importance of honesty

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PR May Be Stressful, But I’m Coming Prepared

Earlier this month, Allie Duncan of NYC PR Girls shared a few reasons that make public relations one of the most stressful jobs on the market (Public Relations Executive ranked #6 on the Career Cast list of the most stressful jobs of 2014). And as an aspiring PR professional, the whole topic made me queasy. Like, gigantic-knot-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach queasy. Why would I pursue a career in a field that is inherently stressful? I mean, I know it’s healthy to be motivated by a little stress, but I can’t fathom spending the rest of my professional (and let’s face it: personal) life drowning in it… SOS.

This past summer I gained my first real and applicable work experience through my marketing internship with Fred Meyer Jewelers. As a copywriter, I dedicated the majority of my time to writing over 200 fine jewelry product descriptions for the ecommerce site. And not to toot my own horn, but I think I was able to uphold an air of professionalism, deliver good content and exceed expectations (toot toot). How was I able to survive in the workplace and not collapse under the pressure of being a newbie?

Something prepared me for this. So I decided to craft a list of reminders to assure myself (and others) that what I’m doing now will prepare me for a career I love. I won’t be a fish out of water when I graduate from this institution and embark on my journey as a public relations professional. Because I know the importance of the taking the following to heart:

Be timely, but be honest. Obviously, it is important to meet deadlines. But if something comes up, your professor, boss or client will be much more likely to understand if you keep them updated and informed. Life happens. Just remember to keep them in the loop.

Admit that you don’t know everything. On multiple occasions this summer I was afraid to ask for clarification, bound by the fear that my question would be considered stupid. But the times I stayed silent were the ones that got me into trouble. If you don’t know or understand something, speak up! It’s far better to ask questions than to make assumptions. And maybe I was blessed with a very inviting, inclusive and helpful work environment, but not once was I ridiculed for the questions I asked.

Revise, revise revise. And then revise again. You will never produce a perfect draft of anything on the first try. Get a fresh set of eyes to look over your work. They’ll help you catch any small mistakes and address miscommunication gaps.

Produce things outside of your classes. The classroom is a great place to learn methods and techniques, but a grading rubric can sometimes put constraints on your creativity. And while it can be difficult to prioritize outside projects with the plethora of deadlines on your to-do list, make time and create content that you care about. I assure you that your passion will shine through the work that you produce.

Form relationships. The University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication is full of knowledgeable faculty with a plethora of experience. Take advantage of this. Faculty can be an excellent resource for providing that extra insight or pointing you in the right direction. During my summer at Fred Meyer Jewelers, I offered my assistance whenever possible. I learned that when you are willing to lend a helping hand, someone will almost inevitably be there to return the favor when you need some extra help. 

By consistently biting off more than I can chew – between credit hours, the thesis process and internship involvement – I almost always feel overwhelmed. But somehow I always survive, and I think it is due to my educational and life experience. And while I can’t comment on my future career in public relations, I can hypothesize that these reminders will help ground me when I get there. Comments, suggestions and reality checks welcome.

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2013 Fred Meyer Summer Interns. Forming work relationships can also result in lasting friendships. Double win!

 

Crisis Quotes and Tips

Crisis Management Quotables by Bernstein Crisis Management… If you haven’t discovered them, you’re missing out on the opportunity to draw inspiration from little snippets of communication wisdom. Each CMQ post has a single quote with words of related advice. And while I have seen a limited number of these posts, they are easily my favorite component of the Bernstein Crisis Management blog. So here I have compiled a list of several of my favorite quotes from the CMQ posts and attached a little tidbit of my own advice to each:

1) “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Identify your goals. While anticipating a crisis is impossible, it is important to have a plan in place for how you will react. If you don’t know which course of action you are going to take, you will flounder when it comes time to search for an appropriate solution. Set goals for dealing with crisis and decide how you will respond in advance.

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Image by Mike Baird via Flickr

2) “A mediocre speech supported by all the power of delivery will be more impressive than the best speech unaccompanied by such power” – Quintilian

Expressing emotion and showing passion will resonate with your audience much better than a monotone delivery. While the words and what you are saying are important, they don’t make or break you. Be sincere. Show people that you care about the issue and be careful about relying on and reading off the prompter. Dare I reference that awkward Netflix apology video again?

3) “There is a world of communication which is not dependent on words” – Mary Martin

Body language. Body language. Body language. Public speaking terrifies the majority of people, but being nervous during your speech can be misinterpreted as being disingenuous. Practice your delivery, and make sure your nonverbal communication is sending the right message.

4) “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it is committing another mistake” – Confucius

Allow your audience to see a genuine effort on your part as you search for a remedy or solution. Find out where you went wrong and figure out how to fix it. Otherwise, you’re doomed to repeat the same mistake.

The final quote that I’m going to share with you is one that I stumbled across on StumbleUpon (go figure, right?):

5) “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity” – John F. Kennedy

Now, I’ll admit that I have a limited knowledge of Chinese characters. But even if this translation is somewhat inaccurate, the message still resonates with importance: Don’t get lost in what can be the overwhelming negatives and potential pitfalls of a crisis. Instead, recognize that the opportunity exists to remedy it. You just have to dig deep and utilize your creativity to uncover it.

The Chris Christie Chronicles: Pleading Ignorance and Shifting Blame

In what appears to be a scheme of political payback, the Christie Administration closed two lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge last September. The result? Angry commuters, delayed medical responders, and allegations about Christie’s involvement.

The entire ordeal reminded me of a plot in elementary vengeance, orchestrated by catty school girls who only saw the instant gratification of payback but lacked vision of what their actions would mean for the future. Sure, perhaps they generated some temporary anger in a public opinion poll about the Mayor of Fort Lee, but they jeopardized the integrity of their administration in an abuse of power and deception.

Christie discussing the George Washington Bridge Scandal at his Jan. 9 press conference

Image by Mel Evans via Bloomberg Businessweek

Enter stage left Chris Christie’s apology. After the spiteful stunt that was the George Washington Bridge Debacle, Christie held a press conference to deny any involvement in the event. And as if the plot didn’t already resemble something out of Mean Girls, Christie’s response was tantamount to the film. I would deem his lack of accountability as nothing short of a crisis communications fail.

Christie was quick to shift blame and plead ignorance – he denied any and all knowledge of the scandal, and highlighted the actions of the members of his administration in order to deflect from his own responsibility. Although he did have this to say:

 Ultimately I am responsible for what happens under my watch — the good and the bad. And when mistakes are made, then I have to own up to them and take the action that I believe is necessary in order to remediate them.

But I’m not buying it, nor am I writing it off as a PR win. This statement seemed like a security blanket, added as an afterthought, and I felt that the message was coated in alternating layers of 1) pleading ignorance and 2) shifting blame. And whether or not Christie is guilty of knowing about the scandal (which, if that’s the case, will surely surface under Federal Investigation), he should have been truly apologetic on behalf of his administration during his recent press conference.

I won’t make allegations about Christie’s involvement in the GWB scandal. But I do question his communication efforts to put out the fire that has fueled this crisis. In the conclusion of his statement, Christie seemed to veer off course from the actual matter at hand (is this really the time or place to be discussing your achievements?) when he should have stayed on the path of authentic remorse and accountability.

Why is it that all to often someone is apologizing but doesn’t actually seem to mean it?

In his piece Chris Christie and the Sorry State of Apologizing, Jason Gay discusses the idea of “sorry as the new hello.”  Controversy, scandal, lies and corruption have become commonplace in our society and the media, which has helped pave the way for these superficial, semi-apologies.

The heat of every controversy inevitably dies down: some other political or corporate mishap is bound to take center stage, which has made it easier to feign remorse – remember Netflix?

People make mistakes, a cliché that has been used to death but is no less true. But it’s how an individual reacts to and handles the situation that is a true testament to his or her character. So let us acknowledge the special few that own up to their mistakes with sincerity, and in the face of crisis offer a genuine apology. Hats off to you.

For the First Time

As someone who loves to write, I find it pretty ironic that I haven’t taken a stab at blogging before. Perhaps it has to do with a fear of putting myself and my opinions out there, but my critiques and thoughts tend to limit themselves to the sphere of the classroom or my journal (call me old-fashioned but yes, I still have and use a physical journal – this coming from the girl who also boycotts the Kindle and still loves the smell of an old book. But I digress).

As this is my first time blogging, please excuse what I know will be the occasional (if not inevitable) word vomit that emerges as I try to get a handle on this whole “blogging thing.” Through this blog I want to explore, dissect, and critique the world of crisis communication.

I am interested in how organizations react in the face of an emergency, and how their communication teams disseminate the details to the media and the public. And while you can never be fully prepared for a crisis, it is essential to anticipate potential disasters and have a strong plan in place for when an emergency occurs. A poorly planned response can be detrimental to your image and the success of your organization.

As I hear about the recent “uh-ohs” like the Southwest Airlines plane that landed at the wrong airport, or the security breach at Target, I am immediately drawn to the responses of these organizations. At times, I’m even incredulous at the tactics they chose to employ in the face of disaster.

But this isn’t just a space to criticize. I also want to commend and give credit to the people that are doing it – and doing it well – because anticipating a crisis is next to impossible, and handling it with grace is a damn tough thing to do.

If crisis communication rocks your socks and you feel like you could vibe with my posts (or offer some constructive criticism), then I welcome you to enjoy some OG Original content. But before we get too intimate, let me share my elevator pitch and a quick five facts about myself:

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Confession: the only time I have ever hiked Spencer’s Butte

  1. My name is Olivia Gust and I love to immerse myself in the company of others
  2. Laughing is my favorite hobby
  3. As a journalism major with an emphasis in public relations, I aspire to work in crisis management – but hey, the world is my oyster
  4. I am an account executive on Allen Hall Public Relations, a student run public relations firm committed to helping clients achieve their goals
  5. As a Peer Health Educator at the UO Health Center, I teach students about healthy communication, relationships and safe sex

Now I invite you to please sit back, relax, and kick up your feet. Come engage in a dialogue as I share my insight about the world of crisis communication.