Teaching Public Relations In a Crisis: The Terrorist Attacks
on the United States
Gayle M. Pohl, Ph.D., APR
Department of Communication Studies
326 Lang Hall
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, Iowa 50614-0139
Teaching Public Relations In a Crisis: The Terrorist Attacks
Teaching public relations in an undergraduate program requires the use of case
studies and current events as examples. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001
provided a perfect case study in crisis communication/public relations.
Public relations is defined as a management function that establishes and
maintains mutually beneficial relationships with relevant publics (Cutlip, Center, Broom,
1985; Pohl, 1995). It is a process that seeks to effectively manage organizational
reputations. To perform such a task, special strategies and tools are used, which include
identifying reactions of relevant publics, designing effective messages, effectively using
the media, and the importance of delivering accurate information to the public in a timely
fashion. The terrorist attacks on the United States not only required quick political and
military responses; it also required an effectively designed public relations crisis strategy
as well. Accurate and effective messages needed to be designed for the terrorists, the
American people, the victims families, and the world٢s communities. All of these
activities are public relations tasks.
Students need to understand that public relations practitioners are often at the
forefront of every organizational and political happening. College classes in public
relations need to teach students how national and world events affect their chosen
profession. One students said, “ … it brought the real life into the classroom.”
When teaching in a professional program such as public relations, bringing the world into
the classroom and the classroom into the world is a pedagogical necessity.
To bring the world into the classroom, lectures and discussions about the events
and the aftermath were designed. Students responded in-class to the events and then were
asked if and how these national events related to public relations. After a series of
discussions, students were asked to develop a public relations crisis plan for the United
To measure student reactions to the national events, classroom discussions, and
exercises, each student was asked to complete an open-ended survey. Responses to the
surveys are quoted throughout this paper to describe the classroom environment and
responses to class discussions and the development of the crisis public relations plan.
Sixteen surveys (out of 22) were completed and returned.
Description of Classroom Environment, Discussions, Exercises and Student
On September 11, 2001 at 9:30 AM CST, the Public Relations Campaign
Methods class at the University of Northern Iowa began. Since the terrorist attacks on the
World Trade Center and Pentagon had occurred approximately an hour and a half before
the class began, it made sense to watch the newscasts during class time. Students
responded to how they felt as they watched the attacks by saying:
It felt like a scene from a really bad movie, and I felt, at some point, the
newscasters would break in and tell the world just that.
I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It felt as thought the floor was
taken out from under me.
I was worried and sad and horrified. My parents live in Pennsylvania and I did
not know how close they were to the crash.
I didn’t really understand what was happening. I couldn’t figure out if the
television was broadcasting a scene from a movie or what. Once I realized the
impact of those attacks, my heart stopped.
I just could not imagine how anyone could be doing this… that it was happening
in the U.S.
…all I could think was “What is happening?” I could not really process anything
in terms of feelings. Then in-class we heard about the crash at the Pentagon.
Then, I was extremely scared, because we didn’t know what was going to happen
Initial classroom discussions covered the questions, concerns and emotions students
experienced as they watched the attacks. The overwhelming response to this discussion
was they felt vulnerable and scared and wondered why and how this could be happening
to the United States. Specific responses included:
I felt very vulnerable, like at any moment the very same thing could happen here.
Yet, at the same time, I felt so thankful to live in Iowa. Somehow, since all we
have here are cornfields and hogs, they wouldn’t bother us.
I was very concerned with the response we would have to this. Like Pearl Harbor,
was this going to lead us being involved in another world war?
Overwhelming sadness. I couldn’t stop crying not only for the victims, but also
I was shocked and very sad that so many people were injured and killed. I
couldn’t believe that someone could have masterminded the whole thing.
Why? Is it going to happen again? I thought I was going to have to live in fear.
Then reality hit --- I had taken living in the U.S. for granted.
Why? What prompted such an act of cruelty? How can two human beings hate
each other so much that they can destroy so many lives?
Class discussions during the week following the attacks broached two different topics.
Since media relations is a large part of public relations, the first question asked was did
they continue to read and/or watch news about the crisis; and the second was did they feel
the media provided adequate answers and/or responses to the questions and concerns the
American people voiced. All students reported that they began to watch the news daily
for at least a week. Some even searched for further information on the Internet about
Arabs and the Muslim religion. After the first week, though, some students grew
frustrated with the barrage of news on the attacks and the inaccuracy of the information
given out by the media.
I couldn’t turn the TV off for a week, for fear I would miss something, but the
media drove me insane. They had answers before there were even questions
I watched CNN constantly for the week after the attack. The media was not very
helpful, but this actually made me feel better, because the media tends to release
too much information that could compromise our efforts.
I watched and read all I could get my eyes and hands on. I felt the media covered
too much, by that I mean every whisper or piece of gossip, which later turned out
to be false. It excited hysteria in America.
I watched and read the news everyday. I think they did not cover what the public
should have heard. They covered what they thought the pubic needed to hear.
It seemed I read and watched everything I could to try to make some kind of sense
(of the events), yet my cynicism created problems with what I would believe from
the media. I referred to Arab news sources on the Internet to make sure the
information jived – especially on how people were said to be dancing in the
streets in Pakistan.
In class, students said they understood the importance of being current about national and
world events, the relevance of identifying how others felt about the attacks and the
impact the media can have on the American publics’ reactions to events. Their responses
to survey questions confirmed this understanding. Application to the practice of public
relations seemed then to be the next logical topic of discussion. When asked if the attacks
and the class discussions about the attacks applied to public relations, representative
responses included the following:
It seemed a bit harsh, yet very practical. Added real, scary life in the classroom.
I enjoyed having an outlet to express my concerns and emotions. I don’t think it
was directly related to PR, but indirectly it certainly was.
It was up to the PR specialists to keep the country in order, by holding constant
press conferences and upholding the image of the U.S.
These attacks were relevant to any and all studies. PR played an important role
during and after the attacks, because communication was needed at an all time
I think it was good that we brought the real life society/media into the classroom.
I felt it applied because we talked about how it would affect what PR people do. It
applies in the sense that companies changed their ad campaigns (more patriotic),
and they also needed to convey how bad they felt that people in their company
It was important to discuss because we needed to talk about it in order to verbally
express our frustration and grief. It really applied in the fact that since September
11, we have been inundated with PR. Everyone is a flag flying America.
… The whole tragedy was an example of crisis management.
Next, the class was asked to prepare a crisis public relations plan for the United States.
The students outlined a plan that responded to their concerns and those of the American
people. The outlined plan recommended that:
1.) Each relevant government office should have only one spokesperson (such as
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell).
2.) Each spokesperson should voice the same consistent message theme. Different
messages should not be voiced --- only one consistent message theme should
3.) A full explanation of the Muslim culture and beliefs should be given to the
American people, so that they fully understand the terrorists’ rationale.
4.) The media should only deliver information that is accurate and has been
verified by an authorized source.
5.) The government should encourage the American people to support the nation
by continuing to lead normal lives in relation to spending and activity.
6.) Security measures must be implemented and communicated to the people.
7.) The world should be notified that the American people stand behind their
These students experienced, perhaps for the first time, the dual role of being members of
a specified public and a public relations practitioner. They allowed themselves to think
subjectively as an American in a terrified nation and objectively as a professional trying
to solve a major crisis. Pedagogically, this is a very important lesson. Public relations
practitioners are often required to separate their personal feelings from their professional
ones. For example,personally they may feel scared after the attacks, but professionally
they cannot allow those emotions to cloud their judgment.
When asked about their perceptions of the class discussions and the campaign
exercise, students responded with the following comments:
It made me realize the impact public relations has on political events and the
ripple effect that can result throughout the United States from public relations
We need PR now more than ever. Behind each fundraiser and special event are
public relations practitioners.
It related to public relations because lots of entertainment, travel, etc .was
delayed and put on hold. It would be up to PR people to get things back on the
I saw how PR is very much the builder of community/business relationships. It has
shown more and more how companies are trying to create the American image
for their business.
I was more aware of the American flag image that suddenly popped up
We discussed that the events of September 11 would impact every industry.
People would be reluctant to gather in mass and the spending habits of the nation
would change. Travel, especially air travel, would decrease, impacting a lot of
I knew that crisis PR would be on the frontline.
As the discussions continued, it was evident that most of the students were realizing the
impact and value of the practice of public relations in today’s world,
Wanting to know if the class discussions and exercises affected the students’
perceptions about the crisis, students were asked if the information they gained in class
affected their feelings and if so, how and if not, why. Generally, students indicated that
the class made them more aware of what was happening nationally and internationally.
Some, however, felt that they knew enough about the situation from their own news
watching and conversations with family and friends.
It gave me more insight into how it will affect my future in this filed. And talking
about it with my peers gave me different perceptions about the situation.
Yes, it affected my feelings because more information was let out that I was
unaware of. I was glad for the discussions and exercises, especially since class
was directly after the second attack.
We talked about things that I already knew, but it was good to know what
everyone else was thinking.
Yes. I could sense that we would pull through this and we would be more bonded
through a common experience.
Yes, I began to realize even more how many patriotic messages have been shaped
by people in the PR industry.
Some. The discussion in class allowed me to step outside of emotion for a while
and be analytical.
Not really, but it did start me on the path to create the way in which I was going
to deal with the situation personally as well as talking to my family and friends.
No, not really. I came to conclusions from my own experiences.
No, because I thought that the people (i.e., terrorists) were crazy and I still do.
The final survey question asked was: “ Have your views on the situation changed since
you first learned of the September 11 attacks? If so, in what ways?” Comments were
varied and provided insight into how greatly students felt the crisis affected the country
and the American people. Responses included:
I have come to a better understanding of what we need to do to avoid incidents
like September 11 from happening again. The rage and hatred I felt right after the
attacks has transformed into compassion and desire to act in peace for peace.
No. People have risen to a new level.
Not really, as time goes on the impact lessens.
Yes, I’ve become more and more angry with the situation and people involved.
At first, I didn’t think a war would be necessary. Now – I believe war is the only
way to solve this problem.
Yes/no. The reality has sunken in and the major impact this has had on America
has been real.
My views have not changed, except that the handling of the crisis by our
“helping” organizations has been horrible.
No. I’m still constantly checking the news and worry about the direction our
country is headed.
Yes. There are many unanswered questions that make me less assured of our
rationale of going to war.
No. I still have my initial question: How can people hate so much to do what they
I don’t feel safe anymore. Everything that I dreamed about (trips, career goals)
was put in a new perspective.
At first, I was thankful this didn’t happen around here in some respects. But after
watching the news and anthrax and other threats, I realized everyone’s freedom
Class discussions and exercises helped students to understand the situation and talk about
their feelings and the role their chosen profession played in the handling of the crisis, but
the fear, anger and uncertainty remained. Pedagogically, the result of incorporating this
into the classroom experience was valuable in that it enhanced practical knowledge and
application of public relations functions. Personally, however, the fear and anger was not
alleviated by the classroom discussions and exercises.
Using the terrorist attacks in an undergraduate public relations classroom as an
example to explain and apply strategic public relations tactics proved to be effective.
Students learned that public relations is a vital aspect of professional, organizational,
economic and political activities. They were able to distinguish between personal and
professional feelings and obligations and design effective strategies for a crisis situation.
Students also learned how to analyze a situation and design a campaign to address the
anxieties and fears of a designated public while giving that public accurate information.