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Event Recap: Truth or Dare! Ethics of truth telling in a crisis

Travis Parman APR. speaking to students in the classroom.

Travis Parman, APR, chief communications officer at AppHarvest, returned to his alma mater to speak on the ethics of truth telling in a crisis. With experiences in various international positions, Parman is well versed on handling any scandal with ethics in mind.

Parman began his presentation by highlighting alumni from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and their accomplishments in public relations. J. Carol Bateman APR., the founder of the Bateman competition, was first on his list of notaries. To the many in the room, giving examples of successful people in your field can be uplifting.

  • Truth or Dare! Ethics in Crisis communication with Travis Parman
  • Woman in pool floaty. Slide says "Calm the F down""
  • Man in suit. Slide says "DONT let legal lead."
  • Rule No. 1 Set the tone. Photo of Parman with explosion behind him.
  • Rule No. 2. Simplify. Photo of Einstein with quote "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
  • Rule No. 3. Herd Every Cat. Video of Ranchers herding cats.
  • Rule No. 4. Avoid paralysis.
  • Rule No. 5. Modernize response. Photo of empty truck saying "Thoughts and prayers have arrived."
  • Rule No. 6. Do unto others as... (you would have them do unto you). Photo of Jesus. )
  • Rule No. 7. Set the Precedent. Photo of sign emphasizing doing good work the first time.
  • Rule No. 8. Balance. Photo of definitions of asymmetrical and symmetrical PR
  • Rule No. 9. Inspire Trust. Photo of little girl saying "Do you trust me?"
  • Rule No. 10. Glocalize. Photo of the word "Think Local/Global" on side
  • Photo of words "Bonus: Learn"
  • Photo of quote. It Reads "In this age, in this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.”

His presentation, entertaining yet informative, with a list of “Rules of Handling a PR crisis.”

Rule No. 1: Set the Tone

Parman emphasized that the level of calmness one takes to a situation, others will follow suit. In a position of leadership, your workers will see your reaction and reflect that to their work. As social creatures, reading the leader’s reactions dictates the emotions of the herd. “It is most critical that you remain cool, calm and collected.” Said Parman, “In a crisis to project the confidence needed to lead the decision-making that must start immediately.”

Rule No. 2: Simplify

Albert Einstein once said, “if you cannot explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” In the age of hyperconnectivity, public statements are shared instantly across the internet. Communicating the situation simply, and on a need-to-know basis, is vital. Parman recalled a situation overseas where his advice to a company was to “leave out all the drama.” The goal of releasing statements on the crisis is to extinguish the fire, not fuel it. Acknowledge the situation, take accountability, and make it simple. A concise statement on how your company works to solve the situation is better than a list of reasons why the situation occurred.

Rule No. 3: Herd Every Cat

Like rule No. 1, getting everyone on board emotionally is vital, but ensuring everyone is working together is just as important. Whether it be a team of three or 300, get everyone on board. The mobilization and combination of efforts, including legal, are crucial to solving problems. Communications works more cross-functionally than nearly every other group—and especially in a crisis.

Rule No. 4: Avoid paralysis

Many organizations in crisis stop in their tracks—afraid to do anything—even after the initial crisis is over—they want to keep their heads in the sand.In some cases—perhaps that’s appropriate—but it shouldn’t be an automatic default. Parman’s work at Nissan was a great example of how to evaluate the impact of a crisis. When the arrest of the Chairman came to light, the company immediately shut down product communications activities for fear of coverage including news about the scandal. Metric showed, however, that not long after the initial news broke, only about 10 percent of media coverage earned through proactive outreach resulted in any references to the scandal.  

Rule No. 5: Modernize your response

“Thoughts and prayers” is a buzzword constantly used as an example of what not to do in a crisis. People respond to actions and accountability. One example he gave was the tornado (Amazon warehouse collapse after tornado leaves at least two dead – CNN) that ran through Mayfield, KY. Deaths exceeded 100 before the day’s end and the “Thoughts and Prayers,” seemed like a slap in the face. Actions speak louder than words. No matter how far up the ladder, one cannot be so desensitized to not tell the audience what they’re doing about the situation.

Rule No. 6: Do unto the others as…

The golden rule is applied in the world of communications. Empathy is needed to understand what exactly to say to those in suffering, or in need of understanding. The audience wants to hear a human response from an organization that aligns with their values. If you do not understand, listen. Understand more about the qualms of the common person to better formulate your message.

Rule No. 7: Set the precedent

Gathering all the facts, correctly and from the beginning, is a must. It is important to act hastily, but getting the message right is better than getting it out quickly. Paralysis is scary and should be avoided, but facts are priority. The situation may be developing while the audience is demanding answers. It will take more energy to retract false information than to get it right on the first go.

Rule No. 8: Balance

Companies will usually be either asymmetrical or symmetrical in public relations. They will be one-way communication, or two-way dialogue respectively. It is important to utilize either depending on the situation. More engaged audiences, especially local and environmental, will want to voice their concerns. Knowing when to listen to the audience to craft your message will be of benefit. Don’t be a one-way fountain spewing information without listening and responding to publics. Seems like this is one of the first comms principles you learn in school and one of the first many forget when they graduate. 

Rule No. 9: Inspire trust

You often see crisis comms guidance to maintain trust. I suggest your goal be to go beyond that to inspire trust—and not just in your organization—but in you.  You are dealing with trust and your own reputation as well as the company’s. In today’s environment where folks don’t work at the same place for their entire careers, it’s important that you establish yourself as trustworthy.

Rule. No. 10: “Glocalize”

Last but not least, a made-up word with wide applicability. One should seek to achieve consistency across all messages, goals and research methods worldwide. But they also are tailored to their media, strategies and tactics to different local publics. Think beyond your immediate sphere—while keeping it in mind

Parman ended his speech with a quote that resonated over 100 years ago. Public sentiment is everything. Even before the term public relations was coined, Abraham Lincoln understood and wielded the power of this profession.

Visit the PRSA website to learn more about the Code of Ethics!

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