Sheridan College’s spokesperson has won an award for her research on dealing with public relations crises and negative media coverage.
The award, from U.S.-based PR association Arthur W. Page Society, was given to Christine Szustaczek, director of corporate communications and external relations for the school, which has campuses in Oakville, Mississauga and Brampton.
“The role of public relations is to really figure out what’s of interest to your needs, your community and your populations, whether they be donors or students,” Szustaczek, told YourMississaugaBiz.com.
Szustaczek won second place in the international competition for students pursuing degrees in corporate communications or public relations. While entrants came from the United States, Korea and the United Arab Emirates, Szustaczek was the only Canadian prize winner.
Her award-winning research paper analyzed how the Canadian Cancer Society handled communications after being profiled by CBC’s consumer affairs show Marketplace.
The episode alleged that the charity was spending more on fundraising and administration than research. The show was based on a complaint made by Brian Lichty, a cancer researcher from McMaster University. While Lichty’s research team received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding prior to the investigation, he still wasn’t afraid to criticize the national organization.
The research paper was written during Szustaczek’s graduate studies at McMaster’s Master of Communications Management program.
While Szustaczek’s analysis was specific to the cancer society and the non-profit sector, the lessons are still relevant to companies looking to prevent a similar situation.
- Be accountable
Szustaczek said the CCS president, Pamela Fralick declined to go on the air for an interview or provide a written statement. This hurt the organization in terms of accountability in the public’s eye. “That really gave the misperception that they maybe didn’t care as much of they did,” she said.
- Transparency can help explain complex issues like philanthropy
The Marketplace episode focused on the percentage of dollars spent on research, but Szustaczek’s analysis found many viewers were left with the perception of mismanagement of funds. This was due to a failure to convey the amount of CCS’s funds spent on other work like prevention, support or advocacy.
“Charities would get more donations if they really focused on the storytelling of what they’re doing with the people’s money as opposed to promoting just one metric or this one financial ratio,” she said.
If CCS had quickly and accurately shared this information or corrected the error, it could have a greater effect on public perceptions about its credibility and knowledge of operations.
- It doesn’t have to start big
Szustaczek said PR professionals are often looking out or preparing for a major crisis like a train wreck or an oil spill and miss things as a result. “This was an issue that didn’t seem like it would grab a headline,” she said, comparing the CCS situation to a low-burning, smoldering fire. “We need to be on the alert on these types of issues to and not waiting until it turns into a crisis.”
For communications managers interested in prevention, Szuztaczek recommends they constantly monitor, know what the issues and are regularly in touch with key stakeholders, as well as their needs, interests and concerns.