Valerie Fields' students ace real-world crisis communications test

Press conferences are stressful for anyone, even communications professionals — but imagine facing tough questions about the COVID-19 crisis, as a student, via Zoom.

As the communications industry had to quickly move online last month due to the nationwide lockdown, UNC Hussman students in Teaching Professor Valerie (“V.K.”) Fields’ Crisis Communications class found themselves dealing with the same problem facing many of their real-world counterparts: how to field questions from reporters in an all-virtual format.

The class builds to an end-of-semester press conference in which teams of students are assigned to play the role of representing a real organization and be quizzed by faculty standing in as reporters. This year, students were well into their planning when the coronavirus pandemic struck. It transformed both the content of their preparation, and their public speaking tactics, as Fields announced the press conference would take place via Zoom. Despite the many challenges, the pressure paid off.

“Because my Crisis Communication class was actually experiencing a real-world crisis in the midst of the crises they represented, they seemed to be even more prepared because all of the classroom knowledge and experiences were put into practice,” Fields said. “My students did a phenomenal job!”

Here’s how it came together:

Assignment shift

When the teams first formed early in the semester, they were assigned to four different organizations: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the British Monarchy, Facebook and Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

As the COVID-19 virus began to gain traction, each had to adjust in real time. “True to the nature of crisis, the focus changed almost every week,” Katherine Johnston ’20 said. Johnston, who was on the British Monarchy team, added: “COVID-19 not only disrupted our press conference, but also became the leading crisis for every client.” Her teammate Sanjana Subramanium added, “In mid-February, our client’s main issue was Meghan and Harry leaving their royal duties ... but as the semester wore on, everything turned to COVID-19 and its effects on the family.”

The CDC team had a very abrupt shift. Early in the semester, Fields later told the class, she had considered theirs one of the more straightforward assignments. But “in a matter of weeks, things shifted and rapidly evolved for our team,” Lena Johnson ’20 said. “We had to quickly shift our focus to COVID-19 and constantly check updates in multiple directions.” Like true communications professionals, the team members quickly adapted their research methods: “We had to adjust to how we were finding our information,” Johnson said. “We all decided that the best way to approach this was to receive constant updates on different platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and different media outlets.”

Remote work adjustments

“People’s jaws dropped when V.K. first said we’d be moving the press conference online,” Sally Hannah Levin ’20 of the Facebook team recalled. But, as Fields explained how the remote exercise would work, Levin said it “began to seem more doable” and students began to put things in perspective. “V.K. told us that how we’re feeling right now is how people in crisis communications feel all the time, as they have to adjust to new environments” Levin added.

“I explained that whether we met in person or not was irrelevant, because the job is essential when people need to know what's going on, what to do, how to stay safe and what resources are available to assist,” Fields said. “Crisis communication may not always be convenient, but it is always needed.”

The students worked with each other to adjust to their new reality, and began to realize how important their teamwork would be in the virtual environment. “One of the hardest parts was knowing how to adjust to the lag times and making sure we knew who was targeting what questions as we couldn't give an in-person cue,” Johnson said of the CDC team’s preparation. Levin said that the Facebook team, already facing countless possible question areas before the crisis, had divided topics among the team members early and learned to watch body language very closely to see if a teammate needed assistance when answering a question.

All the teams took care to arrange frequent Zoom meetings and practices. Kierra Pittman ’20 of the Janssen Pharmaceuticals team described her adjustments: “My group frequented Janssen's social media platforms and website to find answers, met often on Group FaceTime to plan and participate in mock press conferences with classmates. I recall many days where I would be walking around my house, acting as if I was a reporter and a communications specialist at the same time.” But, Pittman said, “the circumstances pushed us to deliver some of our best performances to date.”

The virtual press conference

The teams faced tough, pointed questions from a panel of faculty “reporters” who quizzed them about every facet of the COVID-19 crisis as it related to their organization. The students answered questions promptly, thoughtfully and without interrupting each other, and emphasized the positive messages they had prepared.

The faculty members praised their grace under the extraordinary pressure.

“I was very impressed — but not surprised — by their composure during the virtual press conferences,” UNC Hussman Associate Professor Lois Boynton said. “They were calm, cool and collected despite the compounded impact of handling the pressure online … that reflects greatly on the amount of preparation they had in the crisis communications class – V.K. puts them through the wringer with onerous scenarios throughout the semester.”

A Park Fellow graduate of UNC Hussman, Stephanie Mahin, now clinical assistant professor of management and corporate communication at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, also joined the panel. “How these crisis communications students were able to skillfully talk about such complex issues in a virtual environment was impressive,” Mahin said. “They were calm, poised and worked well as teams to answer questions. That’s not easy to do even in person.”

Johnson and the CDC team summed up the views of many students: “Although it certainly wasn't an easy process, we learned a lot as a team and enhanced our communication skills. During the press conference, we felt all questions asked were fair and challenged us in the way we had anticipated, and we owe that to our professor for constantly pushing us to do our best work.”

Hope for the future

Though the industry will not always be on a remote work lockdown, the faculty agreed on the value of the virtual exercise. “After the dust settles from COVID-19, we don’t know if communication professionals may have to adjust to a new normal,” Mahin said. “So having this type of an experience early should help students realize that no matter the communication channel, proper preparation is never lost time.”

“Whether they face these types of press conferences going forward or not, they are equipped to tackle the unexpected professional challenges that come to all of us, regardless of our occupation,” Boynton added.

The students also reflected on the industry lessons they had learned from the exercise. “We’re starting to see that jobs are going to change as a result of this working from home shift,” Levin said. “So understanding how to work as a team online has really been beneficial.”

“COVID-19 has shown that every organization needs a strong crisis management and communications team,” Johnston said. “This course speaks to how UNC Hussman courses are extremely hands-on, and give us experiences and skills we can apply in the real world.” Her British Monarchy teammate Subramanium added, “I’m so happy I get to graduate from this school with a plethora of both in-class and out-of-class projects and experiences that I wouldn’t have gotten from anywhere else.”

Pittman of the Janssen team echoed her classmates. “I appreciate V.K. still holding the press conference because it pushed us out of our comfort zones. It still produced the same nervousness and excitement as an in-person conference, and I will definitely share this experience with future employers,” Pittman said. “I will tell anyone that the Hussman School of Journalism and Media is one of the best programs in the nation … the learning is hands-on, and it prepares you for the next journey.”

“The Crisis Communications class is a clear example  of the value industry stars like V.K. bring to our faculty,” said UNC Hussman Dean Susan King. “Our students are facing extraordinary circumstances and we are proud to give them the training they will need to succeed in industry.”

But Fields emphasized that credit should go to her students. They, like so many of the UNC Hussman community, are shining in these unprecedented times.

“I'm so proud of my students, and I just want them to know that what they accomplished this semester under the current circumstances is admirable,” Fields said. “The work they did was superb, and they certainly deserve the credit and recognition for it.”