Author Archives: Barbara Ryan

“People trust you” – working in PR is a privilege for USQ adviser

We’ve started a series profiling the amazing practitioners we have on our PR discipline advisory committee here at USQ.  The discipline advisory committee identifies PR trends and guides us on what to teach.

Heather Smith is one of our local practitioner members and a Golden Target Award winner (PRIA). Heather is a skilled and trusted public relations practitioner with 15 years experience working with a variety of organisations.

“My favourite type of work is managing creative communication projects from concept to completion. Currently, I am producing a children’s story book for a client to help raise awareness about people with a disability. I involved 16 school students to help write and illustrate the hard-cover book that will be launched during National Disability Action Week next month. I’ve also recently achieved a government grant on behalf of a client to implement a public awareness campaign that will focus on senior citizens in our community.

I enjoy working as a consultant in my own business because I can choose and ultimately design the types of projects I work on. I also enjoy the autonomy and freedom of being self-employed despite the long hours, hard work and income changeability.

Working in public relations is a privilege. People trust you to do the best you can by their business or brand. The tools we have available are constantly changing. It is amazing to reflect on how I ‘did PR’ five or 10 years ago in relation to how and why I do things today. Technology, culture and trends are always evolving and your practice needs to reflect that too.

I joined the Advisory Committee because I wanted to give back to USQ and the public relations team. Both have played an important role in my development as a practitioner. I believe it is important and necessary to contribute to the institutions who are producing the next generation of public relations professionals.”

New book communicates for success

Understanding communication and how people process messages is any public relations practitioner’s job – but Dr Chris Kossen has taken this understanding to another level with a new book on just that in Communicating for Success, a book he wrote with co-authors Eleanor Kiernan (Senior Lecturer USQ)  and Professor Jill Lawrence (USQ), published in January 2018.

“In this book we aim to help everyone understand what effect communication has on every aspect of our lives,” Chris says.

“We can think of communication as anything that involves a transaction of meaning as a result of messages being sent and received between people. These messages include both intentional and unintentional messages, for example, your yawn at the breakfast table may be unintentional, but it communicates a message, most probably that you are tired.”

Dr Chris Kossen teaches first, second and third year public relations and organisational communication at USQ.

“For public relations students, understanding all the aspects of communication that affect behaviour is critical for them to be successful in their field, and my job teaching PR students was one of the real drivers for me to write this book with my USQ Colleagues.

“We’ve all had the experience of saying or doing something and then being surprised to find that someone else interprets what we have said or done in a way that we never intended. The importance of managing risk in communication holds particularly true today in our world of social media.

“Communication is a complex process with many opportunities for mistakes and misunderstandings to occur, so we hope we can help students, and anyone else interested in communication, avoid and manage these problems.”

“The more effectively we communicate the better we can are able to function across a wide range of areas critical to success.  This includes our ability to manage relationships, to coordinate people, achieve goals and advance one’s career including university studies.”

Dr Chris Kossen is a Senior Lecturer in Public Relations at USQ.  He is currently conducting research into the experiences of backpackers in the casual horticultural labour market in Australia.

Quirky fringe events could deepen connection to place and increase local community engagement – USQ PR research

Detail of Mary-Kate Khoo’s Bed of Roses from Avant Garden 2007.

Research by our own Andrew Mason and Dr Rebecca Scollen shows that it pays to take a risk by adding innovative fringe events to mainstream festivals to increase engagement and involvement amongst local residents.

Their study of the community’s involvement in the quirky ‘Avant Garden’, part of the mainstream Carnival of Flowers in Toowoomba, Queensland, has shown that innovative ideas at mainstream festivals can deepen community engagement and widen appeal of the main event. This deeper engagement has implications for place-making and perceptions of identity by residents.

Avant Garden was held from 2007 to 2010, when the southern Queensland region, and the Carnival of Flowers, was suffering from the effects of a 10-year drought.

Andrew and Rebecca aimed to investigate the role of a grassroots initiative in engaging local people in an innovative place-making fringe festival to determine if such fringe events could contribute to place-making through marketing and engagement. They found that:

  • Fringe festivals can play an important role in broadening the capacity and appeal of the main festival
  • They can improve the capacity for the local community to build local identity
  • Fringe festivals can trigger longer term innovations to place branding

The important takeaway for regional event managers of this paper is that innovative grass-roots initiatives like Avant Garden can provide authentic, and therefore more effective, methods to get more of the community involved in their local festival, and involved in a deeper way.

The bottom-up approach used by Avant Garden organisers was shown to strengthen the links between place and identity for local people attending the event.  Respondents described Avant Garden as ‘quirky’, a good way of showcasing local talent, and a good way to bolster the drought-affected Carnival of Flowers. Andrew and Rebecca found that Avant Garden provided a connection to local public parks for some people who had come to the Carnival specifically this part of the festival, many of them first time Carnival of Flowers attendees.

The research supports the effect of community-generated innovation in regional events, and along with that innovation, some risk taking.

Andrew and Rebecca used observation and a survey of 504 people (13% of total visitors and three quarters of them local people) to come up with their conclusions.  Their paper has been published in the Journal of Place Management and Development.

Careers and internship seminar for USQ PR students

Catching employers’ attention and getting a job

RSVP by Monday:


Ms Yasmine Gray, Principal, Red Agency

Mr Mike Thomason, Career Development Practitioner, USQ

Ms Rebecca Boddington, Senior Career Development Officer, USQ

Date:       Wednesday 28 June 2017

Time:       1pm – 2pm

Location:   Toowoomba campus, G314A and Zoom (Zoom link:

RSVP:      Monday June 26 2017 |  |  07 4631 1042

Yasmine Gray is Principal of Red Agency in Brisbane – Red Agency is Australia’s most awarded PR agency, and is currently PR Week Asia, CommsCon and PRIA Agency of the Year. Yasmine will tell you what employers look for in an intern, and what gets an intern a job with a firm.

Mike Thomason is an experienced career development adviser with special insights into how LinkedIn can not only get you in front of potential employers, but alert you to job opportunities as soon as they come up.  Clever use of LinkedIn can also provide constant professional development that is critical to your progress in the field of PR.

Rebecca Boddington is senior career development officer at USQ who has extensive experience in human resources and graduate recruitment.  Rebecca will discuss what can give you an edge over other PR graduates and win you the interview.

The session will be recorded and posted on the Public Relations @ USQ Facebook page.











New disaster communications post-grad course to start!

Photo credit: Alexas Fotos, Pixabay

With 20% of problems encountered in disaster management related to media affairs and  communication with the community, qualified emergency communicators are more important than ever to a successful emergency management response.

That’s why the University of Southern Queensland now has a graduate certificate for communicators in emergency management.

The Graduate Certificate of Business – Emergency and Disaster Communication is a four course qualification with special flexibility to work around disaster seasons that students are dealing with around the world.  It covers communication for all phases of disaster management, with special emphasis on change communication, community engagement and disaster management.  Social media or crisis communication can also be included in the qualification.

The new program starts in July 2017 and is part of the Master of Project Management, which students can elect to continue once they have finished the graduate certificate with the emergency and disaster communication specialisation.  We also have pathways using these courses into other Masters programs.

Talk to us about credit for skills, experience and previous post-graduate study in communication fields!

Key staff for the program are Matt Grant and Dr Barbara Ryan.  Matt has extensive crisis and disaster response experience with the Australian Defence Force working as the senior communications manager for a range of military operations in the Asia-Pacific and Middle Eastern theatres and in 2004-5 coordinated Whole of Government communications on the ground from Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the Boxing Day tsunami.  He has also been regional news director for WINTV Queensland and has held corporate public affairs roles. He has worked in journalism and public affairs for 25 years.

Barbara Ryan has a Ph.D in how people get information in disasters, and experience in response and recovery communications for bushfires and floods at local disaster management level.  She also spent seven years as volunteer co-ordinator of communication for a district disaster management group in Queensland, Australia.  She was a Mary Fran Myers Scholarship winner for early career disaster researchers, and currently conducts research for agencies in Australia. Barbara is also a co-founder and former director of Emergency Media and Public Affairs, a membership organisation for disaster communicators, and organised the 2013 Fulbright Fellowship with former FEMA Acting Director External Affairs and U.S. Department of Homeland Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Public Affairs, Bob Jensen. She has more than 20 years public relations experience.

The University of Southern Queensland is located in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia, and is a world leading distance education university.  We have a 92% satisfaction rating amongst communication post-graduates for their courses!








Crisis or disaster? IT has helped blur the language

Guest blogger and Australian crisis researcher and practitioner, Tony Jaques, makes some valid points about the language of organisational crisis.


It’s time business stopped misusing the word disaster, and the IT industry needs to take a good share of the blame.

Most recently, an April post on the Hewlett Packard Insights blog, declared: “In general, anything that significantly impairs day to day work can be considered a disaster.”

The reality is, No, it can’t!

Writer Wayne Rash went on to say: “It’s worth noting that a disaster in this (IT) context does not necessarily mean widespread destruction, loss of life, or general catastrophe. What a disaster means to you is defined by what interferes with your operations to the point that it endangers your business and thus requires a disaster recovery response.”

What Mr Rash is saying just might, maybe make sense in the IT world where such language is common, but it’s bleeding into general management usage, and that’s a big problem.

Of course the IT industry can’t take all the blame for devaluing the word disaster. Contrary to typical news media headlines, losing a crucial football match is not a disaster, nor is a temporary fall in a company’s share price. In fact, in recent times, the word ‘disaster’ has progressed from being devalued to being entirely trivialised.

A celebrity posting an unwise twitter message is now labelled as a ‘PR disaster’ or a ‘social media disaster,’ while a Hollywood star choosing the wrong dress for a red-carpet event becomes a ‘fashion disaster.’

This language is genuinely unhelpful and distracts attention from serious matters of real concern. Consider by contrast the United Nations definition of a disaster as: “A serious disruption of the functioning of a society, causing widespread human, material or environmental losses and exceeding the coping capacities of the affected communities and government.” Or within a business context, the Dutch crisis experts Arjen Boin and Paul ’t Hart say: “A disaster is a crisis with a devastating ending.” Anything less just doesn’t quality.

While there is clearly a massive difference between a pop culture ‘disaster’ and a true societal or organisational disaster, contamination of broader business language by misuse of the word has serious consequences for issue and crisis managers.

A key consequence arises from the widespread belief in the IT world that the answer to just about every such problem is a disaster recovery plan. As Mr Rash put it: “A disaster recovery response is the set of actions your organisation must take to continue operations in the face of an unforeseen event.”

Business continuity and operational recovery are vital, but they are just one tactical element of an organisation’s crisis management process. The modern approach to crisis management recognises that it should encompass crisis preparedness and prevention; crisis response; and post-crisis management (of which operational recovery is one part). And that it applies to every type of crisis – financial, organisational, legal, political and reputational, not just operational.

We all love IT and the wonders the digital world can bring to issue and crisis management. But any organisation which says: “We have a great business continuity plan so we are crisis- prepared” is in line for a very big and very costly surprise.

Tony Jaques established Issue Outcomes in 1997 as a provider of management training and consulting services. He worked for more than 20 years in Corporate Issue and Crisis Management, mainly in Asia-Pacific, and served two terms as a Director on the Board of the Issue Management Council, of Leesburg, Virginia.

Tony previously published this blog on May 1, 2017.







Information will be the biggest need in Airlie Beach now

The Airlie Beach community is pretty tough.  I discovered this when I did some interview research after Airlie Beach was hit in 2010 by Cyclone Ului, which was a Category 3 cyclone when it made landfall.

So what will the people in this community be doing right now?

Information gathering will be a focus, between long periods of cleaning up.

Based on my interviews, in the days after the cyclone most will be trying to get a sense of what the destruction means for them in terms of home and work.  This means checking out their properties and checking on neighbours.

Some might even drive to work to see if it is still standing.  All very rational behaviour.

Once they have this sorted out, they will be looking out for friends or getting together with the community groups they belong to, and setting up sausage sizzles for the stranded backpackers or clearing up for older neighbours.

By Day 2, they will be working with other people to clear their homes and neighbourhoods.

The questions I asked in 2010 were about their experiences leading up to, during and after the storm, and how they got information about what was happening. People’s approach to the cyclone was calm, educated and practical.

Most heard early (about six days out) and used their normal weather website to track the path of the storm.  They talked to other people about it, but the experienced people made their decisions based on information coming from BOM and other well-known websites.

Residents fairly new to the area and who hadn’t experienced a cyclone consulted friends, relatives and neighbours who did have experience.

Everyone used the information to trigger their preparation – some relying on experience to guide the process, some referring to council and agency preparation materials they received at the start of cyclone season or had in their Sensis phone book.

This diagram shows what their activity looked like and where its focus was – each of the bigger circles represents more mentions of concepts within these themes, and more connections to other concepts.  To generate this map, I fed all the interview transcripts from Airlie Beach into concept mapping software to see what the main themes were and how they were connected with others.

You can see the biggest circles (which represent the most interconnected activities) were news, information and visuals. Other people were a feature too – you can see this by the more intense colour on this circle and its close relationship to family.

News was the biggest – which seems like a no-brainer.  Everyone wants to know what is going on, the extent of the damage and what it means for them.  The big component of this need for news is making sense of what the situation means for each family or individual – can they go to work or school when this is all over, will they still have an income? Sense-making is a big driver for the information-seeking process in disaster literature, and much of that will happen the day after the cyclone – Wednesday, for people in Airlie Beach.  It will probably go on for weeks for some people.

Information is very tightly linked with news in this sense-making activity.  It has been separated from news in this computer-generated analysis because the linkages are not only with news, but other sources of information such as agencies and – most of all – other people.  You can see it is also very close to the concept ‘looking’ – in fact, news, information and looking are a cluster with connections to other key sources, radio and weather websites.

People and family are separate but joined concepts, and these are among the most important sources of information for anyone involved in any disaster.  So today, people in Airlie Beach will be listening to their battery-operated radios as other people call in to report damage. This important information will enable residents to get a sense of what has happened to their community.  They will have contacted friends and family.  Those family and friends outside the district will have added more pieces to the jigsaw showing the big picture of what just happened. Other people will remain a key source of information throughout the recovery process. It will become most distressing for residents if they lose contact with family and friends because landline, internet and mobile phone connections are down.

What this diagram shows is that agencies will have to be very good at communicating across all sources of information, particularly harnessing ‘other people’ to help spread the word about what has happened, safety issues, what is going to happen and the recovery process.

Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from my interviews at Airlie Beach after that comparatively minor cyclone was its effect on the tourism industry.  Tourist perceptions that the town had been destroyed persisted for months afterward, even though operators had cleaned up and were back in business within the week.  This will be the case for the entire Whitsunday Coast.

Image by – lion_down

Dr Barbara Ryan researches disaster behaviour and teaches in the Graduate Certificate of Business (Emergency and Disaster Communication) (which starts July this year) at the University of Southern Queensland.  She used the content analysis software, Leximancer, for this project.













Putting a value on agency communication in disaster

We’re at the tail end of the disaster season in Australia, with the Queensland bushfire season extended by four months past its usual end, Victoria and NSW working fire business as usual and cyclone watchers waiting for the big one, which could still happen in the next few weeks.

More than ever, community involvement in disaster management is necessary.

Yet my new research shows that more than one fifth of the problems experienced during disasters in this country related to shortcomings in communication with the community. Despite this, less than one per cent of most agency operational budgets are allocated to the communication and community engagement functions.

This one per cent has certainly saved lives already this season – the February heatwave saw catastrophic bushfires in NSW with the town of Uarbry burnt to the ground and others experiencing extensive damage – but no lives lost.

But we won’t always be this lucky.  So where is it going wrong?

I reviewed 22 reviews, inquiries and debriefing documents of events and exercises that occurred between 2009 and 2016, including the Black Saturday bushfires.  The documents covered bushfires (17), floods (3) and hazardous chemical incidents (2).

I analysed 672 recommendations and findings from these reports and found that 20.4%, or 137, concerned community communication shortcomings during the incident.  I did not include agency or cross-agency communication in this count.

This was up 1.3% from a similar study of 2003-2008 reports that was published 2009 with Dr Amalia Matheson.  I’ll talk more later about why this might be.

Top of the list was education and pre-disaster engagement, which reflects the bushfire focus of the documents I reviewed.  They made up 39 of the 137 findings.

This also happens to be the most time consuming function of communication teams, and lack of resources will affect this activity the most. Extensive Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre research shows exactly what needs to be done and what dialogue needs to be established to prepare communities and individuals for bushfire, cyclone, tsunami, earthquake and flooding.   We have the opportunity to be effective in this area with just a small amount of additional investment on what currently occurs. Benefits of doing this are tangible.

Next culprit was communication planning, which included strategic planning for incidents where communication had been overlooked – 21 (or 15.3%) of the findings dealt with this.  This is another time-intensive function, but it has no tangible result – it can’t be linked to the outcomes in a specific incident, and only measurement of trends over years can provide solid proof of its effect.

Warnings attracted 20 findings (14.6% of the total), which was most concerning, because the warnings phase of response is where most lives are saved.   Over-represented in the warnings findings were hazchem incidents, with two incidents examined generating five of the 20 findings relating to warnings.  Reading further into the review of each incident, this seemed to be a result of hazchem events falling outside the experience and operational guidelines of metro and rural fire services.  In some incidents, warnings were received  by unofficial means before the official version arrived.

Interaction with the media was also problematic, with 17 findings (12.4%).  These included delays in moving media materials through head office for sign off in fast moving incidents, where any delay can see a media release or information points out of date before it is released; the importance of having media in state operation centres to speed up broadcast of critical information; and consistency of facts given across all media.

Resourcing of the communication function was specifically identified in five findings (3.6%), but also fingered as a contributor to findings relating to lack of communication engagement plans, overlooking specific communication channels (such as social media), media liaison skills, media planning, and messaging skills.

However, the news is not all bad.   Nine of the 137 findings referred to social media (7%), causing an increase in the total findings on 2010. Seven of these related to incidents in 2011, the other two from the Tasmania bushfires review of 2013. None of the 13 later reviews, published from 2013 to early 2016, referred to social media, indicating that agencies have improved social media strategies and resourcing.

In the 2010 study, half of the 12 reviews considered did not include community feedback in the review process.  Of the 22 reviews studied here, 77% used this technique to identify problems for the review process.  With communication being the key link between operations and the community, it would be expected that more findings relating to this aspect of emergency management might emerge.

Overall, communication is a critical component of emergency management that seems not to have the higher level commitment that it should – after all, appointing a new communicator or funding a preparedness campaign is not as tangible or promotable as a new fire truck.

Barbara Ryan is a disaster communication researcher at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia and teaches crisis and disaster communications in the Graduate Certificate of Business.








ROI – the holy grail of public relations value

Organisations with effective change and communication programs are about 3.5 times more likely to outperform industry peers.

So why is it so hard for PRs to articulate the value of what they do?

And sending students out into the world of communication management equipped with a solid foundation of data to defend their team and the PR function?  Forget it!

Even with access to academic research, it is still difficult to quantify the effect of public relations on organisations – or what we call return on investment (ROI).

So we were pretty excited when we found this research from Willis Towers Watson that surveyed 651 organisations.  It might be three years old, but it, and the 10 years of studies it builds on, gives a very clear picture of what effect good communication can have:

  • superior financial performance (by three and a half times) to that of industry peers in 2013-14
  • a 57% higher return to shareholders 2000-04
  • improvement in communication effectiveness that was associated with a 29.5% increase in market value 1998-2002

‘Effective communication performance’ is built on:

  • Employees – a deep understanding of culture, and developing and delivering on a specific employee value proposition (EVP)
  • Six activities that influence change success:
    • Leading
    • Communicating
    • Learning
    • Measuring
    • Involving
    • Sustaining
  • Targeted and strategic social media
  • Focus on the consumer
  • True engagement of employees
  • Manager training in communication
  • Strong role of internal communications managers in managing change
  • Branding the employee experience (leading to the EVP)

So what are they talking about and how was it measured?

Return on Investment (ROI) of communications is a measurement of the investment in the PR function against overall financial performance.

It was measured by asking companies to place themselves into one of three groups for financial performance, communication effectiveness, and ability to manage change.  Each performance category had a number of activities on which organisations were asked to rate their performance. The flaw is that the Willis Towers Watson surveys have established a trend, rather than a causal relationship.

Probably not as rigorous as this excellent modeling exercise by Kim (2009), but certainly easier to read and with a takeaway that we can use in the board room!

Andrew Mason, Dr Chris Kossen, Matt Grant and Barbara Ryan teach in the communication specialisations in the Graduate Certificate of Business at the University of Southern Queensland.






Evacuation – who does and who doesn’t?

With cyclone season approaching in key-west-81664_960_720the southern hemisphere, emergency managers will be thinking about a big one that might lead to evacuations. And it appears that local information is the key to informed evacuation decisions.

What makes people evacuate or not? And who leaves and who stays?

Newly published research from Texas A&M University and the University of Washington, Seattle, investigates evacuations leading up to Hurricanes Katrina and Ike.  The research gives some clues on factors that affect the evacuation decision making and who does what.

Key points from the research by Huang, Lindell and Prater were:

  • Expected personal impact is the biggest predictor of a person evacuating
  • Older people are more likely to underestimate the speed of the arrival of the storm
  • Women are more sensitive to cues of all types and are more likely to want to evacuate given the right information relating to the risk they face
  • Home ownership does not affect the decision to evacuate, but people with higher incomes and levels of education are more likely to evacuate
  • News media is an important source – and if people accessed any news media, they were likely to have accessed other sources as well
  • Memory of false alarms will discourage evacuations, but if people are assured that this is because of the unpredictability of the storm, and not because information will be withheld or errors made by agencies, they will evacuate
  • Only official warnings, the area people live, expected wind impacts and concerns about obstacles to evacuation will lead directly to an evacuation decision – demographic factors, news media, social and environment cues and hurricane experience all need further mediation to result in an evacuation decision
  • People were preoccupied with wind speed, overlooking the potential for storm and tidal surges into their community, possibly as a result of the focus of official information, which provided scant details on flooding

The biggest take home from this is that the storyline that needs to be built about how the cyclone will affect individuals at a local level.

This puts the spotlight on the importance of local spokespeople who can describe the potential impact in local communities – an approach that contradicts current practice in some areas, particularly in Australia.

A second point is reinforcement of current agency practice  to use as many channels to get information to the community as possible – if people use conventional media and their online forms, they are more likely to tap into other channels and sources.

And who evacuates?

The answer is mostly found in the places people live – their level of risk and the perception of the threat will cause people from some geographic areas and residence types to evacuate. This probably leads to fewer older people evacuating because of their tendency to think they have more time.

People who have access to information from local emergency managers who have local knowledge, and because of this are trusted and credible, are also more likely to evacuate.

So it all comes back to the need for a community-based approach to disaster  management.

Barbara Ryan is a disaster communication researcher at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, and teaches crisis and disaster communications in the the Graduate Certificate of Business. She is currently researching how people receive and react to official communications in a bushfire.