Reflections from National PRSA

By Sam Villegas, APR, MidAtlantic District Director, PRSA National Board

Though there’s roughly another month and change on the calendar year, it always feels like a downshift after ICON, as if we’re slowing around a curve before we accelerate into the straight away of the New Year. It’s a perfect time to reflect on accomplishments of the year and inventory what’s still on the to do list. Here’s a snapshot of those items from the National PRSA perspective:

2017-2019 Strategic Plan

2019 marks the third year and final year of the last Strategic Plan and work has been underway to develop the next iteration that will guide our activities for the next three years. Some measurable results of its three focus areas include:

  • Expanding our membership community: We experienced a steady increase over the last three years in member retention rate, currently at 78%; a steady increase in members over the last three years, now at 21,880, and an increase in conversion of PRSSA members to PRSA members, currently at 575.
  • Enhancing professional growth: Our workshops, webinars and certificate programs all continue to receive satisfaction ratings in the 90th percentile and higher, and participation (and therefore income) in all of them have steadily increased over the last three years.
  • Elevating knowledge through thought leadership: The last three years brought a more concerted effort to advocate for our profession, beginning with several key public statements made in 2017 by then Chair Jane Dvorak. This effort shifted into high gear with dozens of high-profile advocacy pieces in the trade and national press from Tony D’Angelo at the helm, and this work continues under Debra Peterson this year.

2020 – 2022 Strategic Plan

There is much work still to be done in membership and other areas. Work on the next three-year strategic plan began in January. A team of diverse volunteers and staff developed the new plan’s 8 areas of focus:

  1. Innovation and change
  2. Governance and Culture
  3. Discipline convergence
  4. Membership
  5. Diversity and Inclusion
  6. International Potential
  7. Advocacy
  8. Civility

Just to highlight a few places where we’ve already begun to accelerate activity:

Diversity and Inclusion – PRSA continues its efforts to increase diversity within the organization at all levels. This year we completed some very valuable research through a series of focus groups and a digital survey that garnered more than 4,000 complete responses. This information will be used to power strategies and tactics that help us build a more diverse organization for the future.

Innovation and Change – Three areas where we have innovated and begun the process of change to meet the changing expectations of our workforce include our APR, our professional development programming and the back-end technology that powers how members engage with each other and use the resources PRSA provides.

  • The significant technology investment we made over the last three years goes much deeper than the newly refreshed website launched last month. It provides for more seamless and sophisticated integration of services, greater automation, and a design that scales us for future growth.
  • Another area of steady transformation is the APR, our Society’s mark of distinction. We have been looking at everything, from how it is earned, how one renews it to what it’s called. Changes are coming to bring you a credential that better matches the member’s expectations and needs.
  • And, finally, professional development has been a major area of change and improvement in the last few years, with a new, very popular certificate program and a new speaker’s bureau, which invites training expertise from throughout our membership and beyond.

More to come these next few years with focus on civility, more advocacy, tapping into our international potential and capitalizing on industry convergence.

I look forward to my next and final year as the MidAtlantic director on PRSA’s national Board. It’s been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my career – the chance to serve an organization that has meant so much to me, throughout my career. I applaud everyone who has stepped up in any way at the chapter or district level to help move our mission forward and to anyone who hasn’t yet, I ask you, as you downshift into the holidays and plan your 2020, to consider how you might contribute to our collective success in the future.

I would be happy to discuss my experience with anyone in more detail, as well as some of PRSA’s past and planned successes, and I look forward to our continued work together. Peace!

About the Author

Sam Villegas, APR is a senior consultant with Raftelis ( and the MidAtlantic District Director on PRSA’s National Board.

She was the 2009 Chair of the Mid Atlantic District and the 2013 president of the National Capital Chapter.

Leadership Is About Giving Back

By Danny Selnick

The National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of American recently inducted me into its Hall of Fame (for 2019). It’s a lifetime achievement award for the work, volunteering and mentoring I did on behalf of the communication profession for more than 30 years.

I was deeply honored, and for the first time in my life, almost speechless. The truth is, however, there’s no award, prize or anything of the sort more meaningful than volunteering in support of an organization’s mission to help its members or giving time to people who can benefit by our experience or connections.

We all know that time is a very precious commodity, especially when work can be so consuming and home life equally demanding. But when we volunteer, we develop a greater connection to our industry and professional community — and it doesn’t have to be by taking on an officer position or committee assignment for an organization. It can be done, one person at a time.

But one thing to keep in mind — if you’re going to “give,” do it — and be committed to whatever you set your sights on. I can’t tell you how many people I seen over the years run for organizational positions, volunteer to be on committees, or offer help to people with whatever AND then they fall short. Of course, important things come up in life that get in the way, but communicate out as much as you can what’s going on. We understand. But don’t just disappear. It weakens everyone’s efforts.

Finding your place can be as easy as joining a professional organization like PRSA-NCC and looking for ways to get involved – even by just attending events and creating connections helps. Look at committees, where you can help out by suggesting panelists for a special event, or even just come up with ideas that help others with professional and/or personal development. NCC has 18 committees that need your help and each one should be active in putting on great programming.

Another way to give back is to mentor comms students who are not exactly sure which direction of study to take, or to help recent grads find job. For young academic professionals (as I call students), thinking about what to study and/or how to find a job are incredibly stressful considerations. Maybe some of us still remember how difficult it was to embark upon our careers. Don’t you wish there had been someone that could have guided you somehow along the way?

There are a handful of area colleges and universities with communication programs. You can reach out to the program directors and ask about mentoring opportunities. Reach out to local PRSSA chapters and offer to speak at one of their meetings.

To this day, I remember when I spoke to a group of students at George Mason University about finding their passion in PR and how to go about making contact with practitioners. It was a lively discussion, but afterwards, one student came up to me and asked if professionals would really talk to students like her. My answer was, “What, do you think I was born this way?”  Point is, young people are hungry for advice and a bit of leadership from practitioners. You can help one student at a time.  That’s not really a heavy lift, but it sure is life changing for that one person you help.

Oh, and for you young professionals reading this blog, don’t think that you can’t give back right now because you think you might be perceived as having limited experience in the field and that you’re not “seasoned” enough. Au contrare. Young professionals bring to the table new ideas and lots of energy that can re-invigorate organizations (and committees), and you can help mentor students with job searches and career advice. It can also be a great bonding experience since both can relate to each other’s recent experiences – having had to make career choices and the process of getting a job.

As an aside, I always tell students that they will get a job, but that it takes time and effort by also seeking out help of professionals. But that you have to make yourself known. Attend PRSA-NCC and other professional events and use online tools like LinkedIn to connect with others who have the jobs you think you might want to have.

How many of you attend events where other professionals introduce themselves and say they’re looking for job opportunities? We’ve all been there. So, take an interest in your professional brethren and offer whatever help you can, by introducing them to appropriate connections that will help them find job openings or create other connections that will lead them to a position.

So, what’s in it for me you might ask? The answer should be everything. Find what you can do and do what you can. Lead by example and along the way have fun, make contacts and life-long friends AND leave a legacy by helping others.

About the Author

Danny Selnick is a nationally recognized senior communications counselor, who built a successful career at two international commercial news wire services, and is best known for his gift as an industry connector and for his willingness to help colleagues and new practitioners.  Throughout his career, he has been dedicated to strategic marketing and communications efforts on behalf of his clients, including associations and nonprofits, advocacy groups, foundations, corporations, and government and political agencies, who focused on public policy and social change issues. He spearheaded marketing and oversaw successful programs, campaigns and projects that reached key audiences and targeted specific media, decision-makers, influencers and the public based on his in-depth knowledge of news gathering and reporting.  He’s a member of PRSA, PRSA-NCC and The National Press Club, where he is the chair of the Communicator Team and a member of the Club’s Board of Governors.  Connect with Danny on LinkedIn and on Twitter @dannyselnick and at

Crisis Communications: Are you Prepared to Help Your Organization Identify, Manage and Measure Risks?

By Lauren Lawson-Zilai, Senior Director of Public Relations, Goodwill Industries International

At the recent PRSA international conference, I spoke about managing a crisis in a highly networked and volatile world along with my PRSA-NCC colleague, Jennifer Schleman, APR. The session was part of the executive communication symposium, which focused on transitioning traditional communications pros into expert strategic communicators. A summary of the session can be found here.

We have a joke in our office that inevitably, around 5 p.m. on a Friday, we typically get a call or see something online that could impact our organization’s image. Why does this matter? Because social media is a crisis game-changer – depending on your reputation and how you manage the situation – in today’s environment of crisis management.

The Art of Forecasting

Historically, professionals had 24 hours to respond to crises, depending on the news cycle. Now, tweets go live seconds after incidents occur, spreading like wildfire.

Much like you can’t control a fire, but you can manage it, so too can you manage a crisis when it’s perpetuated online.

Issue vs. Crisis

Melissa Agnes is an international crisis and reputation management expert, a keynote speaker and author of “Crisis Ready.

She says an issue and a crisis both have very different meanings but also very different management responses.

An issue is an identified event or trend where you are afforded the time to research the facts and ensure nothing has been overlooked.

A crisis, by definition, is outside normal experience; it causes top executives to drop all other priorities, and it may severely disrupt continuity of the organization’s core business. It is a threat to an organization’s operations or reputation. A crisis involves the need for leadership to be out front with the public, and a crisis can last longer than a day’s bad news.

First, you must first determine the potential types that may affect your organization.

  • Immediate crises are often natural disasters or other major emergencies. There is little opportunity for specific research and planning, but a general plan can be in place to reduce damage and potentially enhance the situation.
  • Emerging crises are those that allow more time for analysis and specific planning. These may include employee dissatisfaction, opposition by various groups, or budget reductions. They can often be anticipated and minimized at early stages.
  • Sustained crises involve situations that won’t go away and may linger for years. Internet rumors are a prime example.

The Golden Hour

Traditional crisis communications references the first hour of any crisis as the “Golden Hour” as that is when organizations have time to establish the facts and most importantly, its response. The growth of digital and social media has dramatically reduced the golden hour to little more than a few seconds. It’s when you determine whether the situation will be a manageable problem or out-of-control disaster.

Organizations should complete broad risk assessments to identify their weaknesses and the possible crises they could face, and document the types of response to be made in such events. It is helpful to go off-site for a period of a few years to envision every possible crisis scenario and develop response statements and sample Q and As to correspond with each.

Additionally, an issues management/crisis communications plan should be in place so the team can follow it in real time as a crisis unfolds. The crisis template plan helps manage all communication before, throughout and after a crisis, and guide the development of a management decision-making framework necessary to manage a crisis.

Assign Each Team Member a Role

As a crisis unfolds, strive for a timely, consistent and candid flow of accurate information to both internal and external publics to allay fears and stifle rumors. The organization should continue to function as normally as possible, leaving it to the crisis management team to contend with the crisis.

Assign specific roles to team members and identify them ahead of time, such as designating:

  • One person to speak to external publics.
  • One person to keep internal stakeholders fully informed.
  • One person to craft a statement and share accurate information with the media.
  • One person to man the social media channels.
  • One person to disseminate information to employees.

Rehearse the team regularly — at least every six months. Train and retrain the spokespeople, emphasizing the need for them to work with others involved so the organization will be seen as speaking with one voice.

Build Your Base of Advocates

People are more likely to believe a third party, so build your brand advocate base over time and ensure that they are equipped with resources such as talking points, statistics and graphics. Advocates can include anyone who interacts with your brand, as well as social media influencers or spokespeople who have significant followings and believe in your brand.

Ensure that your internal communication is just as strong as your external communication. Employees will advocate for the brand if they are equipped with the right information; and make sure they comply with your social media guidelines.

First Response

At the onset of a crisis, conduct a situation report to gather the facts, then immediately issue a holding statement, such as: “We are trying our best to determine what exactly occurred and greatly appreciate your patience. You can find more updates here: [Insert link].”

Compassion is an important ingredient for success in handling a crisis. Follow-up statements should be short, factual and express concern.

It may be necessary to have a dark page where you have testimonials from supporters, a video from a subject matter expert, a response letter and images if necessary. This is a great place to direct people to an answer quickly — whether it’s through social media or broadcast news. It’s also an effective way to explain a complex situation.

Social Media and Crises

It’s imperative to determine when a crisis is brewing, so activate social listening. Search engines (aka Google) have taken over traditional media and provide the quickest and easiest way to find information online. You can also use paid tools, such as Cision or Talkwalker, and a social media management system like Hootsuite to stay on top of the conversation.

Ensure you have established social media community guidelines, which set the tone for engagement and reflect your brand’s personality. If there is a certain hashtag being used to describe your crisis, go where the conversation is and use it. Ditch corporate speak and don’t use acronyms or jargon. Avoid being defensive. Don’t say “no comment” or ignore any general comments or queries, as that can only further the intensity of your crisis.

Use visuals to get your story across. Keep written materials short and concise, and don’t put your holding or response statements in PDFs. People won’t be able to find them through search and you won’t be able to track the number of impressions.

We are living in an era of public mistrust, so we must break through the noise by demonstrating an unwavering commitment to integrity, transparency and authenticity for the brands and organizations we represent.

A livestream can be used for a press conference, ongoing incident updates, emergency response tutorials, instructional discussions, and public Q&A, among others. A message announcing the livestream should be published on all appropriate platforms prior to the broadcast. The engagement format should be detailed, including information about the two-way dialogue.

Community managers should answer questions on the livestream in real-time, regardless if there is a two-way dialogue with the spokesperson in the video, and respond with only publicly available information and links.

Amplify content that announces the livestream as well as the broadcast. Depending on the content, the full video could be edited to soundbites and you can link back to the full video.

Once the Dust Settles

After the crisis is over, reconvene the crisis management team to debrief. Review the crises’ causes, the organization’s responses to it and the outcomes. Update the crisis management/communications plan in light of the most recent experience.

Crisis communications is just a small part of emergency preparedness planning or what some refer to as a Continuity of Operations Plan. Your crisis communications plan is part of a whole, not just a stand-alone guide. is one resource for planning ahead for disasters to business, your people and your community.

About the Author

Lauren Lawson-Zilai is the incoming president for PRSA-NCC. She currently serves as vice president, Hall of Fame chair and liaison to the pro bono and community support, mentoring, new professionals and university relations committees, and is part of the strategic planning committee. She previously served as chair of the pro bono committee; PRSA International Conference Gala chair; Thoth Awards Gala chair; board director; and board secretary; and she served on the association/nonprofit, membership and professional development committees. Lawson-Zilai is the recipient of both the Platinum and Diamond Awards for outstanding contributions to the chapter.

Lawson-Zilai is the senior director of public relations and national spokesperson for Goodwill Industries International, and has been quoted frequently in the media including, ABC Radio, the Associated Press, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Elle Magazine, FOX, The New York Times, The NonProfit Times, PEOPLE Magazine, and USA TODAY.


Predictable Surprises: Why reputation management is core to business leadership

By Tracy Schario, APR, chair of the PRSA MBA/Business School Program committee

Warren Buffett famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

Sage advice from a business luminary. However, many MBA programs don’t offer a strategic communications or reputation management course. PRSA and 15 universities are actively working to change that scenario.

Many communicators approach reputation management from a crisis communications point of view. Business operations teams often approach reputation from risk mitigation or risk avoidance. The synergy among these departments exists to develop an understanding of how communication strategy aligns with the larger strategy, vision, and values of an organization.

Reputation management is creating a “culture that promotes conflict avoidance versus fire-fighting,” explains Paul Argenti, author, professor of corporate communications at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth University, and founding faculty of the PRSA MBA/Business School Program. Argenti joined faculty teaching the program during a recent webinar (watch here).

Reputation management and crisis communications is as much about “intelligence operations” and scenario planning as it is about measurement, said Argenti. Companies serious about reputation management understand they need “data-driven insights rather than gut instincts.”

Argenti was joined by professor Tricia Horn, from University of Central Missouri, the newest member of the PRSA MBA/Business School program, who shared their approach to teaching reputation management, and Kathleen Donohue Rennie, PhD, APR, Fellow PRSA, an associate professor at New Jersey City University, who discussed PRSA’s research and evaluation of the program.

To request a copy of the webinar slides, please contact

About the Author

Tracy Schario, APR, is chair of the PRSA MBA/Business School Program committee. She leads media and content strategy at MITRE.

Time for an employee communications fall tune-up

By Susan C. Rink, President and Owner, Rink Strategic Communications, LLC

It’s fall ─the season for tailgate parties, apple festivals, plaid flannel shirts and pumpkin spice everything. For most private sector companies and non-profits, it’s also time to start working on the 2020 operating budget. If you are an employee communications professional reading this blog, chances are you will be asked to do more in 2020 than you did in 2019, and most likely with less money.

It’s a fact of life. I’ve often joked that while my friends in marketing can get a million dollars to do a customer event, we employee communicators have to hold a bake sale to get the money for a simple email template. Sad, but true.

But instead of lamenting our lack of funds, employee communicators should look at fall budgeting season as an opportunity to tune up our communication campaigns and vehicles. It is just like taking your car into the mechanic, and watching them hook it up to one of those computers to assess the battery, spark plugs and all the other mysterious things living “under the hood.” This is the perfect opportunity to take an unbiased look at what you and your team have worked on over the past three quarters and whether or not you have met your performance goals.

How do your programs measure up?

For starters, are you measuring your communications vehicles? Are your measurements limited to open rates, or do you include polls and feedback loops to see if people are actually reading the articles and receiving information that they find useful?

What about your all hands or town hall meetings? Do you track attendance? Do you do any type of post-event survey and track those results to monitor trends and identify areas for improvement?

What about messaging? Are your employees able to describe the company’s strategic platforms, do they know how the company is performing against key business metrics, and can they explain the company’s culture?

If you answered yes to all the questions above, kudos to you! The bulk of your work is done and now you can get down to the nitty gritty details of determining which programs to sunset (or cut off cold turkey at the end of the calendar year), which to maintain, and where there are gaps to fill.

But what if you answered no to most of the questions? In that case, you have a bit of work to do. The good news is that it won’t take you a lot of time and won’t cost a lot of money to do so. (Although I probably shouldn’t tell you that, since companies hire me to do communication audits for them. But hey, we’re all friends here, right?)

The “Do it Yourself” Mini Audit

To conduct your mini-audit, you’ll need to get a feel for what is working and what isn’t. There are a couple of ways to do that.

One is to take advantage of existing data, such as a recent employee opinion/engagement/culture survey. These surveys are a wealth of information about employee attitudes on such topics as leadership candor/approachability, connection to the company’s mission, and health of the culture – all topics which are influenced and reinforced though effective communications.

Another idea is to institute a “flash poll” of a random group of employees, about 15% of the workforce. Keep the number of questions limited to five or so, and focus on messaging and information flow. You can issue the poll after an all hands meeting or a couple of days after an employee email newsletter is distributed (if you have one of those, if not, there’s another tool for consideration). There are lots of great online polling tools you can use, like Survey Monkey and Poll Everywhere, which offer free 30-day trials.

The third option is to host some informal focus groups to gather anecdotal feedback. To drive participation, schedule them during lunch and market them as “brown bag” sessions. One word of caution, you’ll need to be very clear that the topic is communications; otherwise it may devolve into 60 minutes of complaints about anything but communications.

Armed with the data you have gathered, you can now gather your team to discuss the findings and make informed decisions about what you can do differently and/or better in 2020…including measuring all your communications programs on a monthly basis.

Happy fall!

About the Author

Susan C. Rink is president and owner of Rink Strategic Communications, LLC, which helps their clients talk to and listen to their employees during times of change. Her clients range from global technology, retail, manufacturing and hospitality companies to professional associations and non-profit “think tanks.”

Prior to forming Rink Strategic Communications in 2007, Susan spent more than two decades in employee communication leadership positions with Nextel Communications and Marriott International. A long-time resident of the Washington, DC, area and former chair of PRSA-NCC’s Independent PR Alliance, Susan recently relocated to South Carolina where she is learning to drive faster, speak slower and cook really good grits.

Experts Needed – That’s You!

This blog is a forum for members of the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and other public relations professionals. Your expertise is a welcome addition to this community.

Please consider writing a post. This is a great way to give to the profession and the professional society that has helped us all as PR professionals.

We welcome blog submissions from members and other contributors who are interested in providing content that can be useful for public relations practitioners. Below are blog submission guidelines.

Helpful Blogging Tips and Best Practices

  • Length should be between 500-800 words
  • Submission should include subheads and paragraph breaks (if appropriate) to avoid the appearance of a “wall” of text
  • Author should use a conversational tone and show personality in writing
  • Post should include links to the chapter website and other websites if appropriate
  • Author should submit images when possible along with caption and permission information
  • Mentions of a company/website within a post and/or in the author byline are allowed, but posts cannot overtly promote a product or business (only sponsor organizations are promoted to members)
  • While the posts are the opinion of the author, submissions that demean individuals, companies, professions or businesses will not be accepted. The purpose of the blog is both to advance the profession and provoke intelligent discussion among peers.

NCC Blog Submission Process

  • Send a Word document and images to jill [at]
  • Word document should include:
    • Byline with author name and title
    • Post title and content
    • Links, if applicable
  • Image should be accompanied by caption and permission information
  • The post will be scheduled and the author notified upon publication

This is a great way to get more exposure for your ideas and expertise. All blog posts are included on the PRSA-NCC home page and also shared on PRSA-NCC chapter social media channels.

‘They chew gum, don’t they?’

To get the word out with media relations pieces, Think Like a Reporter

By Ann Wylie, president, Wylie Communications

Famous story about a PR pitch gone bad: A PR pro at Warner-Lambert Company calls an editor at Inc. magazine. When, she asks, is Inc. going to run that story she pitched on W-L’s new flavor of Trident gum?

The editor explains that Inc. is a magazine for entrepreneurs and that every story the magazine runs is designed to help its readers build their businesses. Given that, the editor asks the PR pro, why would our readers be interested in a story about Trident?

The PR pro replies: “They chew gum, don’t they?”

With pitches like these, it’s no wonder journalists’ biggest pet peeves are releases that aren’t relevant to the audiences they serve, according to a survey by Greentarget.

So how can we write relevant releases?

1. Write about the reader.

A few years ago, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did a study to learn who or what was most important to readers.

Get the word out with media relations

Would you like to learn to develop story ideas that readers want to read and that media outlets want to run? If so, please join Ann Wylie at NOT Your Father’s News Release — a two-day PR-writing workshop on Oct. 17-18 in Washington, D.C.

“Their answer was in some ways surprising. Many did not say their families, children or God,” writes Dick Weiss, former writer and editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Instead, their answer was: ‘Me.’”

If that’s what reporters’ readers care about, that’s what reporters care about too.

“What I really like about a [release],” a trade journal editor told Public Relations Tactics, “is when it scratches my reader’s itch and not your client’s itch.”

So write about the reader. Not about “us and our stuff.”

Learn more about writing for the reader.

  1. Offer value-added service stories.

More than half of business-to-business editors surveyed seek more feature releases, according to a study by Thomas Rankin Associates. Those include value-added stories like case studies and how-to stories.

Greentarget learned the same thing in its study: Journalists find releases that contain thought leadership — surveys, tipsheets, case studies, etc. — most valuable.

As Bruce Upbin, senior editor at Forbes, counsels: “Present the key element … that explains how your story can benefit Forbes readers.”

Learn more about writing tipsheets.

That’s write about the reader.

And yet, PR pros persist in writing about themselves.

“I recently got a message from a reporter working at a small local paper who received 80 press releases in one day,” writes digital communications strategist Jeremy Porter, “of which only two were relevant to the information his paper covers.”

Keep doing this, and we’ll be as successful as Warner-Lambert with its Inc. pitch.

Even if they do chew gum.

About the Author

Ann Wylie works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. Learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services. Get more writing tips when you subscribe to Ann’s free ezine.