Having a chance to repay a debt owed to my alma mater

Published 4:02 pm Friday, May 5, 2017

There are few people, places or things for which I have more passion than the University of Georgia and the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications there.

This love affair goes back decades to when I was an incoming junior at UGA. I walked into Grady on the first day so nervous that I thought seriously of walking back out and going home and getting a job at the General Motors assembly plant like my high school buddies. Instead of going home, I found a new home.

In the intervening years, I have had the privilege of serving as president of the National Alumni Association, being named an Outstanding Graduate of UGA, a Fellow of the Grady College and to have had a room named in my honor there. I am glad I decided not to join the assembly line at the GM plant.

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Getting to this point in my life has been the result of a lot of help from a lot of people who took an interest in me and in my career. Now, it is incumbent on me to offer that help and to show that interest in the next generation. One of my greatest satisfactions is being able to provide funding at the Grady College for students to travel to conferences and to network with industry professionals and to provide internships and fellowships to some outstanding young people.

Proceeds from this column go toward that effort. I have the best of both worlds. Not only do I get to play a small part in helping young people at a time when they are evaluating their career choices, I also get to jerk the chains of the humor-impaired and report on politicians acting like — well — politicians. My cup runneth over.

There is an ulterior motive, I must confess. The majority of my career has been spent in communications, either as an external counselor on the corporate side or for the past 20 years tossing opinions around on the media side. Today, I am worried about both sides. The public’s opinion of the news media has never been lower. The credibility of the media has never been under greater suspicion and — in my opinion — the media have never been more clueless as to how to restore our trust in them. Here is hoping the Grady graduates and those who have taught them will have some answers as how to reverse that trend. Arrogance and defensiveness are not answers.

On the corporate side, many institutions and organizations handle crisis situations abysmally. That is because decision-makers tend to give more credence to legal counsel than they do to understanding the public’s (that is you and me) reaction to the crisis and forgetting that the Court of Public Opinion has the final say on a company’s reputation.

One of the primary reasons for this is that while there are some good public relations practitioners around, there are far too many who are better at telling each other how wonderful they are than at convincing their boss that good legal counsel is not always good external counsel and making it stick. Facing down attorneys in a crisis is not fun and it doesn’t particularly make you popular with your peers. Trust me on that one.

Recently, I endowed a professorship in Crisis Communications Leadership at the Grady College. While I am hopeful that Grady journalism graduates can help stem the negative perceptions of the media, I am equally anxious that the college turn out future generations of external counselors who can earn a seat at the head table and have substantive input when critical issues are being discussed.

It is my intent that the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications becomes the go-to place for the media and for companies seeking expertise on crisis situations. Recently, Dr. Bryan Reber, who heads up the crisis communications leadership discipline, was interviewed by CNN about the United Airlines fiasco. That is a good start, but there is much more to be done if we are to be a nationally recognized leader in crisis communications. For me, being No. 1 at UGA is about more than football.

The time and tithes I have been able to give to the University of Georgia and to the Grady College have truly been labors of love. The place has given me much and I am trying to give back as best I can. But I owe both a debt I will never be able to fully repay.

You can reach Dick Yarbrough at yarb2400@bellsouth.net; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb