Finding Teaching Moments after a Disaster

Champions of Change
When done with the good of the public in mind, public relations strategies can be powerful tools for change.

J. Suzanne Horsley, Ph.D.

I am both humbled and honored to be chosen as one of the Champions of Change for helping to build more resilient communities. My experience in disaster responses has shown me that while the most horrible circumstances may bring out the best in people, individual and organizational preparedness is still the key to surviving a disaster. I am fortunate that my work as a public relations professor at the University of Alabama allows me to incorporate work for the public good in my teaching, research and service responsibilities.

My involvement in community service started early through 4-H Club projects and led me to organize an adult literacy tutoring program in college. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, I had a desire to find a job that mattered. I decided to go back to school to become a public relations professor and do research in crisis and disaster communication. During my academic journey, I have found a natural fit as a disaster public affairs volunteer with the American Red Cross. The training I have received and the experience I have gained by deploying to disasters has had a tremendous impact on my teaching, my research, and my approach to service learning in the classroom.

I teach a course in public relations campaigns in which seniors plan and implement a complete campaign for a nonprofit client. This service-learning course gives students hands-on experience while producing a valuable product for an organization that serves the community. It’s not often that students get to see an immediate impact from their work for a client, but last year, timing was everything. On April 26, 2011, students in my public relations campaigns class presented a check for $2,000 to our local Red Cross chapter. They had raised the funds to support disaster relief during their semester-long project to increase awareness of the organization.

Exactly 24 hours later, an E-F4 tornado ripped a six-mile long path through our city. Businesses, homes, medical facilities, restaurants, schools, fire stations, and even our local Red Cross chapter office were destroyed or rendered useless in mere minutes. The money the students raised was put to work immediately and helped the students feel a connection to the relief efforts in our community.

Because of widespread damage, power outages and a growing list of victims, the university suspended classes and cancelled final exams. I was able to work full time with my husband in the Red Cross disaster relief shelter alongside many other university faculty, staff, and students. I recruited a group of public relations majors to join me in supporting the media relations and public information efforts for the next several weeks. These young people made me so proud as they selflessly put their own needs aside and used their skills to help people in their community. The students learned more from this experience than I could ever teach them in a traditional classroom.

My experiences during the April 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado response prompted additional service learning projects in my PR campaigns classes. Over the past year student teams raised funds, held special events, published a book of Red Cross testimonials, and promoted the work of the Red Cross throughout our state. Many of those students have continued their civic involvement with the Red Cross and other nonprofit organizations even after the class was over.

As a volunteer, my expertise in public relations helps promote the organization’s mission of disaster preparedness and response. Whether at home in rural western Alabama or away on deployment in another part of the country, my work in disaster public affairs helps to educate communities about where to give or get help. I tell my students that public relations is a powerful profession because its goal is to change a person’s attitude, awareness or behavior. When done with the good of the public in mind, public relations strategies can be powerful tools for change.

There are hundreds of examples of educators from across the country incorporating community service into their academic work. I have found it a great way to reinforce classroom teaching and to empower young adults to realize they can make a difference with their own skills and abilities. My volunteer work in public affairs also keeps me current in my profession so that I can share current trends and knowledge of the discipline with my students. My hope for my graduating seniors is that they find satisfaction in their chosen careers and continue to contribute to the public good wherever they may live.

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

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