In 2014 Annual Conference, 2014 Conference - Tuesday

By Laura Kern, APR

Susan Vernon-DevlinSusan Vernon-Devlin, Director of Public Relations Service at Massey Communications, is a real world Olivia Pope (for those “Scandal” fans). She has been through crises in the age of the smartphone from the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Fla. to Maryville, Mo., where two young girls were sexually assaulted. The hour-long session covered everything a public relations practitioner needs to know to create a crisis communications plan and handle and recover from the crisis. This summary was compiled from five pages of notes!

Crises can happen in a split second because people are waiting to catch a fault on their smartphones and upload it to YouTube, Facebook, Vine, etc. These take-a-ways will help your organization “handle it.”

  • The No. 1 rule of crisis communications: Always have a plan. After we go to a crisis session, how many of us actually go back to our offices and take the time write down an organization-wide crisis plan? As Susan said, “It’s not if you will have a crisis, it’s when. Your crisis is coming.” It’s time! “Some of life’s best lessons are learned at the worst times.”
  • Act quickly and rationally. Have what you need to execute your plan, including the plan, your tools (smartphone, tablets, WiFi hotspots, etc.) and people. If you don’t have what you need, gather outside resources, even if that means borrowing people for another organization. “You can fake confidence – you can’t fake competence.”
  • Is it over yet? How does your organization, respectfully, get back to normal after a crisis and pick up the pieces? First, you may think the crisis ends when the media storm dies, however remember someone is still hurting from the incident. Return to normal, slowly. Next step, immediately learn from any mistakes you made or hiccups in your plan and edit the crisis plan.
  • Perception is reality. Your job is to make sure that the public, whose perception may be incorrect, understands the facts. From messaging to timely responses, you must mitigate the damage for your organization as best as you can.
  • Arm yourself with smart equipment. Don’t bet on your ancient laptop or BlackBerry working to get you through a crisis. Create a crisis team with smart, trained people who know what they’re doing, designate a spokesperson who’s comfortable with the media, and get some techies on your team who can handle website updates, social media postings and non-functioning systems for you much quicker than you can.
  • Use your smartphone. Your crisis may have started on someone’s smartphone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use yours to get your organization out of it. Arm your smartphone now to be prepared for anything:
  • Download social media apps, from Facebook to Vine, YouTube to Twitter.
  • Download news feed apps, from CNN to your local paper’s mobile site and BBC to BuzzFeed.
  • Add mobile TV apps from national to international stations.
  • Program phone numbers into your phone so you have contact info for the people you’ll need in a moment’s notice when your crisis happens.
  • Know when you’re outgunned. Don’t have a team or technology strong enough to support you in a crisis? Admit it and get help. Update your resources, solicit outside help, borrow people and make sure “its handled.”

Do’s and don’ts of crisis communications

  • Identify the crisis communications team before the incident
  • Identify your spokesperson who is comfortable with media
  • Train your spokesperson
  • Establish notification systems
  • Identify stakeholders who have your organization’s best interest at heart, and are not looking for their 15 minutes of fame.
  • Don’t act like a fortress
  • Don’t wait to formulate messages. Have some in the can, ready to go.
  • Don’t react without checking the facts
  • Don’t complicate the message
  • Don’t think you will come away unscathed. Remember someone got hurt, and people will remember that.

Looking for a great crisis communications plans to lean on when building yours? Susan says there are many online, and off the top of her head Duke University, UCLA and Pfizer have great plans you can reference.


Susan Vernon-Devlin is a crisis communications expert and reputation manager, public relations practitioner, media relations specialist, spokesperson and published writer. She has more than two decades of experience in these arenas, and is probably one of the most well-spoken and connected people you’ll ever meet.

For six years, Vernon-Devlin shared her talents exclusively with local government, developing community outreach and media relations programs for the cities of Casselberry, Fla., and Oviedo, Fla., and for Seminole County Fla. government, where she led an award-winning team. She is a certified Advanced Public Information Officer trained in crisis communications through The Department of Homeland Security Office of Emergency Management and FEMA. She’s put her crisis communications expertise to work for the City of Sanford, Fla., in connection with the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, for the city of DeLand, Fla., regarding an officer-involved apprehension death case, and for the city of Maryville, MO, to mitigate the effects of the Daisy Coleman alleged sexual assault case.

Vernon-Devlin has produced television programs for the Travel Channel, Discovery Channel and TLC. Early in her career, Vernon-Devlin also produced feature segments for National Public Radio.Vernon-Devlin also makes time in her busy schedule to be active in the community. She is a member andsecretary of University of Central Florida Town & Gown Council executive board, the chair of University of Central Florida’s Community Council, a board of trustees member forthe Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park, Fla. and serves on the marketing committee for the Orlando Ballet. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Pace University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, in New York City.


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