• 15Aug
    Categories: Conferences Comments: 0

    Last week was the annual AEJMC (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication) conference, which was held this year in Chicago to celebrate the association’s 100th anniversary. I love going to conferences: they’re so intellectually stimulating, offering the chance to learn about cutting-edge research long before it’s published, and to discuss the work directly with the researchers. They’re also a great opportunity to catch up with old friends, network with other scholars in the discipline, meet the up-and-coming graduate students who will soon be your peers, and—if you’re lucky—spend a little time exploring a new city. AEJMC was all of those things for me this year.

    I didn’t get to venture into Chicago as much as I would’ve liked. I’ve been there before, but it’s such a great city there’s always more to discover and revisit. I did manage to make it out to the IO theatre and see a performance by the legendary TJ & Dave, an experience I highly recommend. Friends who got into town the night before got to see several performers audition for Saturday Night Live, in the grand tradition of Chicago improv and sketch comedy. Next time, I’ll try to add an extra day to my own travel plans to take in more shows.

    The trip wasn’t without its setbacks. After my first full day there, I completely lost my voice. As you can imagine, this made it rather… challenging to interview candidates for our two tenure-track online media positions. Trying to restore my voice by resting it, I ended up missing the last few interviews we had scheduled, as well as a planned evening out with my grad school friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. I pick my friends well, though: they had sushi and miso soup brought to me in my hotel room. Isn’t that touching? And it clearly helped, since I was able to croak my way through my research presentation with Nina KL Miller late Saturday afternoon. (I’ll be talking about this project more in the future.)

    Despite the untimely attack of laryngitis, I was able to attend some paper sessions and participate in conference life to some degree. I was part of a panel organized by David Mindich (who received the AEJMC Presidential award at the business meeting Saturday morning), on Digital Overload and Digital Fasting. We discussed the difficulty of balancing our need to stay connected with our need to recharge and reflect. Collectively we reflected on agency, boundaries, and identity as they relate to our use of social media. This was not a panel of pat answers; these are tensions that we are all struggling with to varying degrees, still figuring out how to productively incorporate these technologies and the firehose of information into our daily lives, and how to set limits. For example, thanks to Jennifer Rauch of Long Island University, I learned about the “Slow Media” movement (similar in concept to Slow Food), which advocates placing careful limits on one’s media consumption to better savor the benefits.

    My own contribution focused on the tension between individual agency and hard economic realities for those who work in social media production, or whose profession relies to a significant degree on the 24-hour information cycle. But that’s a blog post for another day. In any case, I thought it was an interesting and productive discussion—it’s always a good sign when the panel seems to be over too quickly, and there’s so much more to be said.

    A highlight of AEJMC for me was getting to see my dear friend Sue Robinson, recently tenured at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, receive the prestigious Hillier Krieghbaum award for outstanding scholar under 40. Her work exploring the shifting world of journalism as it adapts to technological change has been strongly influential in her field. She is a brilliant researcher and a terrific person, so I can’t imagine a more deserving award recipient. That alone would have been worth the trip to Chicago.

    During my time at AEJMC, I heard colleagues present papers on corporate social responsibility, nonprofit relationship building, the importance of voice in social media, the state of current thinking about image and reputation, how practitioners manage life-work balance, the role of journalists in crisis communication, and many other topics. I had conversations with professors from all over the country about teaching, research, the challenges faced by higher education, and how lucky we are to be able to grapple with these important subjects every day. I love coming away from a conference full of stimulating ideas for my own work. Considering that the semester starts next week, it’s excellent timing!

  • 15Jul
    Categories: Conferences Comments: 0

    Last week, I had the honor of delivering a keynote address at the American Marketing Association Nonprofit Marketing Conference in Washington, DC. My topic was crisis communication, and as a focal example for my talk I used the incident earlier this year with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood.

    Reputational crises are especially insidious for nonprofits, especially in a time when many people are hard-pressed to scrounge up discretionary cash for charitable giving. Not only is a nonprofit organization wholly dependent on its reputation when appealing to supporters, but those who donate typically do so because of some deeply held values they believe are reflected in the organization. When you play a role in someone’s construction of self, you are particularly vulnerable when something happens that changes their perception of you. And when you are as large and encompassing as the Komen Foundation, with such a capillary structure, any highly visible policy change is likely to displease some number of stakeholders.

    In Komen’s case, the way they handled the media storm provoked when Associated Press first announced the decision on January 31st—no initial response, a couple of brief press releases simply stating that the decision was not politically motivated, as many claimed, and then a reversal of the decision (followed shortly by the resignation of their chief policy officer) a mere three days later—served to alienate stakeholders on all sides of the issue, and inadvertently gave weight to their detractors’ claims.

    Zombie photo by Rodolpho Reis on Flickr

    I mentioned in my talk that high-profile crises are like zombies: they never really die, but once they’re “over” they continue to lurk around the Internet and the mainstream media in an undead state. Search culture ensures that coverage of the crisis will remain just a Google away, influencing perceptions of the organization indefinitely. What’s more, whenever the organization finds itself at the center of another controversy, or a situation arises that shares some points of comparison, they are resuscitated in sidebars and backgrounders, moving into the public conversation once more.

    In the shorter term, the Foundation appears to be suffering some lingering negative effects from the crisis, nearly six months later. Participation in the Race for the Cure is down by as much as 30% in many areas. In March, The Daily Beast reported that the organization was forced to cancel its annual National Lobby Day, a major event that brought activists and survivors to Washington to advocate for stronger national programs to support breast cancer education, prevention, and treatment.

    Komen affiliates are working hard to reassure their local supporters that funds raised remain in the area and are not sent to the Foundation’s main headquarters. Many of these affiliates are struggling to continue to provide services, caught as they are between diminishing grant funds at the national level and hesitant local donors.

    In my address to the AMA nonprofits, I emphasized the importance of taking a big-picture view when planning communication strategy. Komen appeared to have been caught off guard by the firestorm, which is surprising. I suspect the Foundation was lulled into complacency when there was no immediate reaction to their decision in late 2011. Even so, had they been paying attention to the larger cultural context, they might have been prepared for controversy and developed appropriate communication strategies. A few key trends that probably influenced public reactions to the decision:

    • the fact that the US is in the middle of a highly polarized presidential campaign season, so that people are more prone than usual to look for and ascribe partisan political motives to actions that run counter to their beliefs;
    • the fact that healthcare issues are at the forefront of public discourse and debate, in particular questions of access by less privileged segments of the population to preventive care;
    • the ongoing economic recession, which has heightened tensions regarding the aforementioned access to healthcare, as well as contributed to a sense of “class warfare” in the United States and elsewhere (evidenced by, among other things, the Occupy movement);
    • media discourse alternately condemning and denying the existence of a politically motivated “war on women”;
    • growing backlash against the “pink movement” and accusations of “pinkwashing,” leading to a sense of  fatigue and increasingly public criticism of the breast cancer movement in some quarters.

    Crises don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s easy for organizations to get caught up in a narrow view of their own goals and objectives, but forgetting the broader landscape can lead to serious consequences. All of these factors should have been taken into consideration by Komen when strategizing about how to communicate their decision to the public. Which, actually, they never did—the left the news to be “uncovered” by the media, without taking the opportunity to clearly explain to stakeholders why the decision was made and how it fit into the nonprofit’s larger mission. This oversight suggests that the Foundation’s leadership didn’t expect a controversial reaction to their change in policy, a position that seems surprisingly naive for such a sophisticated organization.

    I love working with nonprofit organizations in general, and I think crisis communication is an area particularly ripe for discussion. Based on the great conversations I had with attendees during and after my session, it seems a lot of people working in nonprofits agree. Aside from my own contribution to the proceedings, I thought the AMA Nonprofit Marketing Conference was a terrific event, and wish I’d been able to attend more of the sessions. Talking to professionals in the field serves as a good reminder that academic research in applied communication has potentially important practical ramifications, and motivates me to seek out more opportunities for collaboration.

  • 25Aug

    The layout and design are just placeholders until I have time to play around a bit more, but meanwhile I want to go ahead and get started. This blog has been through several iterations, but has been offline for a few months: I wanted to rethink my purpose in having a professional blog, decide what I hoped to gain from it and what I thought I might have to offer. I also wanted to put together my professional site as a whole, and try to make it a little more cohesive than it’s been in the past. You know, do a little strategic thinking. It seemed appropriate enough.

    So, as I start over again, it’s time for (re) introductions. My name is Dawn Gilpin, and I’m brand-new to the faculty of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where I teach public relations. I recently finished my PhD at Temple University, under Priscilla Murphy. Before moving to Philadelphia for grad school, I spent most of my adult life in Bologna, Italy; by the end of my time there, I had my own small international communication business, and was also collaborating with a local PR agency, primarily focusing on crisis management and internal communication.

    You can read a lot more about my work over at the rest of my site, if you’re interested. Here in this blog, I want to focus on a couple of things:

    • reflecting on the particular challenges of teaching public relations;
    • discussing various issues in the public relations field as they arise or come to my attention;
    • talking about some of my own research, particularly in issues management, crisis communication, and social media;
    • becoming part of a community of public relations educators and practitioners, many of whom I’ve been following from the sidelines for months or even years.

    That last point is really the most important, for me. I’ve been active online for more years than I’d rather think about, and I have experienced first-hand the value of virtual communities for sharing knowledge, sparking ideas, collaborating on projects, and forming friendships. I look forward to finally engaging in the kinds of conversations I’ve been reading, getting to know some of my favorite PR bloggers better, and continuing to learn as much as I can.