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Stress and Crisis in Public Relations: Staying Cool on the Go


October 21, 2011

Earlier this year, CareerCast.com named “public relations officer” the second-most stressful profession in America. PR professional ranked directly after commercial airline pilot (No. 1) and before emergency medical technician (No. 9).

After studying 200 white-collar careers, the online jobs site explained their selection of public relations for its top-10 list — released in April — saying, “This highly competitive field and tight deadlines keep stress at high levels for specialists … and some are required to interact with potentially hostile members of the media.”

Whether or not you agree with this ranking, it raises interesting questions about what causes PR job stress and how to cope.

I reached out to fellow crisis communications professionals who have managed natural disasters, airplane crashes, government investigations, product recalls and more.

Through LinkedIn, I connected with PRSA and Accreditation group members, as well as other crisis and general PR groups. Dozens of crisis PR professionals from around the world responded to the following questions:

  1. What aspects of crisis communications counseling are most stressful for you?
  2. What are some ways that you manage crisis-related stress?

Even if you don’t manage crises, consider how you can apply these expert insights to defuse stress within your department or firm. You may also use these tips to calm senior executives who react emotionally or irrationally in stressful situations.

Most stressful aspects of crisis communications

Balancing multiple priorities is a major cause of stress, noted Amy B. Ferguson, former strategic counsel to Louisiana Economic Development and now principal, Ferguson Freelance, New Orleans.

“The most stressful part is coaching a client to achieve balance between the internal need to act thoughtfully and strategically and the external pressures of the media’s never-ending news cycle,” Ferguson said. “This was particularly true in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

Client reluctance to share information puts PR professionals in a precarious position. “It is most stressful when the client doesn’t share information with me in a timely manner,” noted Gayle Falkenthal, APR, owner, Falcon Valley Group, San Diego. “I can’t do the best possible job when I’m not fully aware of all aspects of the situation.”

Several respondents underscored that a lack of planning causes stress.  “It’s stressful when most organizations do not have a viable crisis communications plan and will wait until a crisis to devise one,” said Anne Marie van den Hurk, APR, principal, Mind the Gap Public Relations, Tarboro, N.C.

How to manage crisis-related stress

Crisis PR professionals shared many excellent personal techniques for managing stress. I’ve grouped them into four categories:

  • Preparation
  • Teamwork
  • Perspective
  • Practice

Preparation

Writing from Afghanistan, Air Force Technical Sergeant Michael Andriacco serves as regional support command, north public affairs officer. “The best way for me to manage crisis-related stress is to have confidence in the groundwork I’ve laid with my superiors as well as the media and public,” he said. “Without the foundation, my stress would be much higher.”

Preparation also involves broadening your scope. “When a crisis occurs, it’s too easy to focus all of your attention on the news that pertains only to your client’s current situation,” said Dick Pirozzolo, principal, Pirozzolo Company Public Affairs in Boston.

“That happened to me once. I worked through the night on a client’s statement and raced to his office for a morning meeting. I missed a competitor’s announcement that changed the industry forever.”

Teamwork

I conduct crisis media training sessions in which small groups prepare for mock press conferences.  Participants are often amazed at their ability to develop key messages, write a media Q-and-A and prepare their spokesperson within a 20-minute time frame. A key takeaway from this exercise is the power of teamwork in a crisis.

Monica Carazo, communications officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District, offered, “My crises usually deal with life-and-death situations of students. To lessen the stress, each department member has assigned duties. One PIO talks to the parents. Another takes calls from the field. A third PIO writes media statements.”

Linda Locke, former senior vice president of reputation and issues management for MasterCard Worldwide and now principal, Reputare Consulting in St. Louis, noted, “One of the best ways to manage stress and keep a clear mind is to separate out planning and execution functions so the leader isn’t trying to strategize and do the work simultaneously.”

She added: “Bring in colleagues to help. I remember training a team of technical writers to step into a crisis to support the PR people.”

Perspective

When a crisis erupts, PR professionals may become emotionally and physically exhausted and unable to think objectively. Several respondents discussed the value of sharing thoughts and feelings with a trusted confidant and discussed how they are able to stay objective.

As a former public affairs officer for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Transportation Safety Board, Phil Frame was responsible for communications during plane crashes and an Amtrak derailment.

“Keep your perspective,” he said. “I knew there was nothing I could do to bring the victims back to life. My role was to help prevent the next disaster from occurring.” 

Touching on the importance of planning, Frame, now president of Outcome Assurance Corp in Detroit, added, “Use your brain, your crisis plan and your instincts to make decisions, not emotions.”

Héctor Héreter, a San Juan, Puerto Rico-based PR freelancer, wrote that he practices detaching himself from the situation. When consulting for a Fortune-100 oil company in Peru, “I was the only person to travel through guerilla-controlled areas and meet with several of the key players,” he said. “I was scared beyond description but was able to detach as if I was watching a movie.”

Practice

Is the ability to successfully manage stress innate, or can people learn how to do it?

Many writers agreed that coping with stress takes practice. “The ability to stay calm comes through experience,” said Donald Steel, a London-based specialist in crisis communications and former chief communications adviser to the BBC. 

Devise and practice your own personal stress-relief techniques. “Take care of yourself,” suggested David L. Shank, APR, Fellow PRSA, president and CEO of Indianapolis–based Shank Public Relations Counselors. “When I get home, I’ll turn on a brain-dead TV show or dive into a good and goofy mystery book.”

Medical experts caution that extreme stress can lead to an inability to think clearly, headaches and irritability, sometimes resulting in serious health issues. Exercise, get enough rest and remember to eat. Consider taking a break when the crisis is over. My favorite post-crisis therapy is to start a new oil painting.

Barbara Kerr, APR, executive director of communications and marketing for Clark College in Vancouver,  concluded, “Remember that this too shall pass. If time allows, then I do crossword puzzles or Sudoku to think about something else . . . while eating dark chocolate.”

 

Stress-busting Strategies in a Crisis

Preparation: Set quarterly meetings with executives, including the legal team, to learn about business issues that may escalate. Use this information to write a crisis intervention strategy or to refresh your current crisis communications plan.

Teamwork: Ensure that team members know their specific roles in a crisis. Pre-screen crisis PR firms, crisis communications consultants and other specialists who can jump in to support you.

Perspective:  Crises are emotionally and physically draining. Share your thoughts and feelings with a trusted PR colleague to gain objective insights or release tension.

Practice:  Staying calm during a crisis takes practice. This includes practicing ways to relax when you get home. Read a novel, watch TV, go for a run or paint. And, as Mom would say, be sure to eat and get plenty of rest.  — J.G.

Joan Gladstone, APR, Fellow PRSA Joan Gladstone, APR, Fellow PRSA, is CEO of Gladstone International, a crisis communications firm based in Laguna Beach, Calif. Learn more by visiting www.gladstonepr.com or by following her on Twitter: @JoanGladstone.



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