Reflections on PRSA Conference and upcoming Homeland Defense Risk and Crisis Conference

October 28, 2008

Just returned home from speaking at the PRSA International Conference in Detroit and now preparing my comments for my presentation at the Homeland Defense Journal Risk and Crisis Communication conference in DC on Nov 3. A few reflections.

The PRSA conference struck me as a strong contrast to the conference in New York a couple of years ago with Donald Trump as the keynoter. It was one of the most disgusting displays of arrogance, chauvinism, ego, and all the distorted values that too many in our profession and nation were pursuing at that time. The world has changed since then and maybe it is a reflection on that that the opening session on Sunday noon at the conference in Detroit started with an absolutely marvelous concert of gospel music by the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Detroit’s gospel choir. They received a standing ovation after nearly every song.

The keynoter was Craig Newmark of Craigslist. Aside from a bit too much partisan politics mixed in for my taste, Craig’s message was simple and clear: live your life in a way that does good–and you will do well. When taking actions, think first about how you would like to be treated if the roles were reversed. Yes, the good old fashioned golden rule. Craig’s job–he is one of many customer service reps at Craigslist. He answers hundreds of emails from users helping them solve their problems. The humility and rejection of greed and pride he demonstrated were in absolute and stark contrast to the pride, arrogance, lust and overweening ambition of Mr. Trump. Congrats to PRSA for an outstanding conference!

Another speaker whom I unfortunately missed was Mitch Albom–one of my favorite writers. In penance I suppose, I picked up Albom’s latest bestseller “For one more day” at the Detroit airport. I’m sure the guy in the seat next to me thought this guy dressed up like a business person next to him must have been nuts since I blubbered my way through a good part of the book. And when I got to Chicago for my flight to Seattle I called my mom to see how she was doing. Those of you who have read the book will understand.

I think the 120 or so who went to the presentation by Pat Philbin and his former associate Aaron Walker will be talking about this for months. Pat is the former head of external affairs at FEMA and Aaron Walker was the director’s press secretary–both caught up in the Oct 2007 “fake news conference.” (disclosure: Pat now is our Senior Vice President). It was a most lively, spirited and heart-felt discussion. I think everyone came away with a strong sense that we live in a world in which reputations and lives can be destroyed in an instant, sacrificed on the altar of compelling headlines and higher ratings. I think what was also learned by many PRSA members is how quick even those of us who are in this business are to believe what we read or see in the news. There was a sense of shame that we ought to know better.

My takeaway from this was similar to the contrast between Trump and the Gospel Choir and Craig Newmark–it comes down to character. In this case, honest mistakes made by smart, hardworking communicators of exceptional integrity. But taken down none-the-less. But their character showed through–and ultimately there are few things more valued or honored.

Oh, and by the way–my presentation focused on the risks to building trust in an era dominated by instant news and the drive to build audiences at anyone’s expense. If interested, you can download my very visual presentation by going this page on the PIER website.

And if you are interested in a great conference talking about mega trends in risk and crisis communication for the 21st century, I think there is still time to sign up.


3 Responses to “Reflections on PRSA Conference and upcoming Homeland Defense Risk and Crisis Conference”

  1. Jimmy Jazz Says:


    Thanks for the update. I was really hoping to go to the risk and crisis comms conference, but it’s not to be. Would you mind posting a review of the sessions you attended afterwards? I’d really appreciate it, and would love to hear your thoughts on the content.


  2. David Perl Says:

    Excellent article Gerald and and one that strongly resonates with me – we preach hard for organisations in crisis to demonstrate the 3 C’s – “caring, compassionate and concerned” – at the ned of the day its all about people and how you treat them.

  3. gbaron Says:

    Just saw your note Jimmy–I just posted a quick overview. Still in DC for meetings. I hope I can get some time to give a more thorough overview of some of the very good discussion. Also see my story on the website on this.

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