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How to get ready for the unexpected

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Robin Schell

That was the topic of the panel presented prior to the Yankee Chapter of PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) annual meeting, moderated by Robin Schell, APR, Fellow PRSA and Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA, partners at the behavioral public relations firm Jackson Jackson & Wagner (JJ&W). Panelists Vanessa Stafford, VP of Communications for the NH Hospital Association, Roz Whitaker-Heck, APR, Associate Provost for Academic Affairs for Champlain College and Jayme Simões, President of Louis Karno & Co. provided perspectives from the healthcare, education, and nonprofit sectors.

JJ&W began by sharing this 3-step model for issues anticipation

First Step: Issue Identification. Identify the top 5-10 issues that keep your organization’s leadership team up at night. Scan the media environment for industry issues; pick the brains of your fellow industry and PR professionals and create an “issues anticipation team” that monitors those issues and communicates regularly with each other. Note: put together a cross-section of volunteer employees from different departments; they will offer different perspectives (note: this has the added benefit of creating cross-departmental relationships).

  • HEALTHCARE, like others, is dealing with a severe staffing shortage – hospitals have had to transfer patients to other states because even if they have the beds, they don’t have enough staff to provide care. The hotly debated vaccine requirement adds insult to injury.

  • EDUCATION has been impacted on every level, from daycare at pre-schools to remote learning programs for colleges. COVID-19 has forced changes that were bound to occur, from re-imagining how educational content is delivered, acquired & taught to creating work-life balance for faculty & staff – all while facing new financial realities that include large deficits.

  • NON-PROFITS/TRAVEL’S new challenges include finding a way to stay relevant; COVID-19 has stimulated systemic change and “there is no going back – there is only finding a way to adapt to the new normal.”

Second Step: Issue Analysis. Brainstorm issues that could impact your organization in a variety of categories, not just the obvious “hot” issues:

  • Latent: back-burner issues that could becoming emerging or hot, with time

  • Emerging: 10% of the population is aware of and is dealing with this issue, but it’s not yet hot

  • Hot: All-consuming issues you are dealing with at the moment

  • Fallout: Issues that result from or spin off from a hot issue

  • Association: An issue that happened at another organization in your industry, but could happen at your outfit

Third Step: Issue Response Strategy

  1. Brainstorm realistic strategy options. “What would happen if…”

  2. Write scenarios of possible futures, using a “decision tree” to predict the various twists & turns the issue could take

  3. Build templates that define:

    • Strategy considerations

    • Core messaging for each crisis, with generic holding statements

    • Members of the crisis team, with decisionmakers and approval process protocols identified

    • Target audiences & the best methods for communicating with them

    • Logistics planning

For more information on PRSA’s Yankee Chapter, visit For more information about Jackson Jackson & Wagner, visit or contact Robin Schell, APR, Fellow PRSA at or 603/770-3607.


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