July 1, 2012
As leaders in our profession, we pride ourselves on anticipating issues. With all of the uncertainty — economic and otherwise — that we need to manage, I believe that the next quality that PR professionals should be prepared to champion is resilience. We need to focus on understanding what makes an enterprise more resilient and take a leadership role in advocating strategies and tactics that promote it.
Resilience became a hot topic in a different context several decades ago, when child psychologists began to develop programs to help adolescents bounce back after the inevitable disappointments of their teen years. Experts like Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that such programs did more than help people feel better; they helped them perform better at school. This initiated a formal discipline called “positive psychology.”
About a decade ago, when the long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum thought that soldiers needed more than physical training; she believed that they needed to be taught resiliency. As she told The New York Times, “This is the trophy generation. Kids participate in carefully orchestrated activities, where no one is allowed to lose or have a right.” Under her leadership, with General George Casey’s backing, the Army began a formal program to develop techniques for “optimistic thinking.”
After 9/11, the concept of resiliency became a focus for communities and the nation. I currently sit on a committee called the Department of Homeland Security Institutes of Medicine (IOM) Permanent Committee on Health Threats Resilience. Our job is to assess the nation’s ability to be resilient following a major emergency, attack or health threat. The committee’s work is confidential, but there are smaller-scale examples of resiliency at the local level.
Months after the devastating tornado hit Joplin, Mo., on May 11, 2011, Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, sent a team to study the stricken community to see why it was bouncing back so much more quickly than others. They concluded that some communities are more resilient than others because they “keep volunteers, donors and the news media engaged.”
In 2010, PRSA surveyed its Leadership Assembly delegates and published a white paper titled “The Public Relations Professional of 2015.” The paper examines the role that senior PR professionals will play in the future. The four top job descriptors were:
Combine those four requirements with the terms defining a resilient community — “keep volunteers, donors and news media engaged” — and you have the blueprint for an important initiative.
Resilience is broader than crisis communication planning because it examines how an organization and each individual, according to the American Psychological Society, “thrives, matures and increases competence in the face of adverse circumstances.”
When placed in modern context, and drawing on what we’ve learned from other sectors, the first task is to recognize the value of resilient employees and a resilient organization.
If we apply the conclusions of the Columbia team to Joplin, then we can translate what they mean to modern corporations:
Of course there are benefits and risks of being the first to champion a cause internally. By default,we become an expert on the topic as well as the target for criticism. Being a leader on resilience requires advocating the topic’s importance and building support from internal constituencies, such as legal and human resources.
In the face of important but disruptive challenges, from mergers to layoffs, resilient individuals and organizations will have a competitive advantage. We must be willing to champion the cause.