News Stories

Responding to crisis

By Cameron Rogers | Defense Information School | August 13, 2015

FORT MEADE, Md. --

In a time when it seems every little thing isn’t going to be alright, public affairs professionals act as beacons for stability and hope, ready to outrun outrage and put rumors to rest whenever they are called upon.

Air Force Master Sgt. Michael Andriacco is one such professional, having worked to keep the public informed on crises ranging from on-base explosions to airplane crashes during his nine years as a PA specialist. As a result of his 18 years serving in the Air Force, he has been moved around several different Air Force bases, and has most recently been stationed as an instructor at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland, in December 2013.

“Every crisis is different,” he said. “There’s really no one-size-fits-all kind of situation that happens.”

However, trouble always finds a way into a person’s life, and Andriacco’s was no exception. There were three major crises he had to deal with at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, and Andersen AFB, Guam.

“Crises for the military tend to be a little different than for a commercial company,” he said. “For us, it’s about getting the information out there.”

According to Andriacco, Johnson & Johnson’s recall of Tylenol after the cyanide poisonings of 1982 is a good example of public relations salvaging a situation.

The company’s response to the seven deaths from tampered Tylenol containers was to assemble a seven-man PA team that consistently met over the course of six weeks, recall all containers in stores, and add tamper-resistant packaging before relaunching the pain medication. The strategy worked: 90 percent of Americans polled did not blame Johnson & Johnson for the poisonings, and 79 percent said they would continue purchasing Tylenol.

Andriacco described the policy of most PA teams as “maximum disclosure; minimum delay.” This idea came into play during each crisis he faced, starting with the crash of B-52 bomber at Andersen AFB in 2008 that killed all six of its crew.

Though the crash occurred in Guam, his PA team at Barksdale AFB worked with their counterparts at Andersen to handle the situation. “There was a lot of coordination between the two bases,” he said.

Nine time zones separated the two bases. The precise coordination needed to ensure that both PA teams were up-to-speed on the incident’s latest developments required people from both bases to regularly work overnight. “This enabled us to have someone we could contact directly in each other’s offices, and maintain those lines of communication,” he said.

One of the most significant tasks for PA teams was to eliminate any rumors until the rescue efforts conclude, according to Andriacco. Due to the media’s influence on public opinion and rumors about who may have survived can give false hope to family members or complicate the rescue operations.

On the influence of reporters and mainstream news, Andriacco said that people in PA should “build a good relationship with the media, because they are going to help get your commander’s message out.”

A more hands-on approach was taken in the aftermath of a natural gas well explosion at Barksdale AFB in early 2010.

The explosion, which occurred in a non-residential area of the base, killed a civilian contractor. Though no rumors or fears of terrorism sprouted up, Andriacco and the PA team took precautions by going to the blast site and taking photographic evidence of it and the remains of the contractor.

Andriacco said that, in cases such as that, media speculation can be a potential risk for PA professionals.

“The biggest challenge is trying to prevent the media from speculating that something was related to an act of terror,” he said. “This is where giving them all of the available information is beneficial.”

In the previous crisis, he and the PA team had to disseminate as much information as possible. On the opposite end of the spectrum is only being able to release a minimal amount of info. With those conditions in effect, Andriacco had to carefully handle the PA efforts of Andersen AFB after a hiking accident on the base in January 2011.

The victim of the accident was the 13-year-old daughter of a colonel stationed at the base. Her family did not give the PA team consent to release information about the victim, requiring them to deal with the media cautiously.

“In order to protect the identities of those involved, we could not release names to the press,” Andriacco said. Throughout the coverage of the accident, he and the PA team were inundated with calls about the identities of the victim and her loved ones.

He said that the B-52 crash taught him to develop a good relationship with the media, which he tied into his approach to the hiking accident.

At one point, information about the victim leaked out to reporters, and it was going to be published in local newspapers. Having already gotten to know trustworthy members of the press, Andriacco was able to not only get the release delayed to the following day, but prepare the base leadership and the victim’s family for the article’s release as well.

“The first thing is to gather any information we can,” Andriacco said. “A lot of it is trying to make sure we have the most up-to-date information, and that we’re releasing what’s releasable.”

From each incident, Andriacco looked back at what strategies he employed did and did not work. “I didn’t really learn any aspects of PA I hadn’t known before, but I did get to put some of those aspects into practice for the first time.”

“My advice for people interested in getting into Public Affairs would be to have thick skin,” he said.

He warned that in crises like the ones he faced, mistakes may occur and emotions will run high. He said he believed that being able to take criticism and keep a level head during those types of incidents will prove invaluable to PA newcomers.

To Andriacco, training for a PA crisis is never comparable to handling a real one. “We kind of hope we never get that experience, because it is usually surrounded by tragedy.”