Grace Under Pressure: Balancing Human Dignity With the Media Frenzy Around the Coronavirus

October 28, 2020 3:15 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Session Type: Reputation & Crisis Management

Imagine getting several hours notice before a plane of almost 200 Americans lands at your base facing a 14-day quarantine in the midst of the coronavirus global health emergency. March Air Reserve Base suddenly became the epicenter of quarantine on U.S. soil. The public affairs officers at March Air Reserve Base didn’t see it coming as their base was identified — at the last minute — as a holding area for Americans repatriating from China during the coronavirus outbreak. The public affairs team had no choice but to pivot, think smart and adopt a proactive approach to risk communications.

As the media frenzy ensued without a lot of initial answers, public affairs officers endured threats from a hostile community and thousands of media calls. To make matters worse, social media took on a life of its own with rumors spiraling about the coronavirus and its perceived threat to the community, the military and contractors. Meanwhile, families were contained with minimal contact to the outside world. Learn how the team used a risk communication model to successfully build community trust and positive PR during a time of great uncertainty.

Find out ways they positively engaged the community during a highly volatile public affairs event, even if they can’t observe the story up front. Over the course of 14 days, emotions ran high among the local community who reacted out of fear as the world came to terms with a deadly virus. The team developed innovative ways to tell the story of evacuees, engage the community, neutralize hostile audiences and move in a positive direction through collaboration with other federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Pentagon.

The lessons learned from the first base affected by the coronavirus, and the application of best practices from the science of risk communication, are applicable to any organization facing an evolving crisis.

By the end of this session, participants will be able to: 
• Identify proven media relations strategies for unanticipated crisis communications.
• Explain how to neutralize hostile audiences in the heat of the moment, ensuring positive messages are heard.
• Identify key elements of a risk communication model that work with local communities consumed with fear.
• Balance the human element, privacy rights and a hungry media during times of uncertainty and stress.
• Translate ways to counter social media and “fake news” in the heat of crisis.
Ann P. Knabe
Ann Knabe, Ph.D.

APR+M emergency preparedness liaison officer, U.S. Air Force


No Photo Available | PRSA, Public Relations Society of America, Inc.
Major Perry Covington

public affairs chief, March Air Reserve Base, Riverside, California, Air Force Reserve


No Photo Available | PRSA, Public Relations Society of America, Inc.
Colonel Beth Horine

director of public affairs, Air Force Reserve, U.S. Air Force