Renowned public relations expert, Helio Fred Garcia, an adjunct associate professor who teaches in the MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication (PRCC) program within the NYU SPS Division of Programs in Business, recently shared his in-depth crisis communications experience with more than 350 high-ranking military leaders and Department of Defense (DoD) officials who attended a detainee training operations event that was hosted by the 200th Military Police Command.
Garcia, who was one of two civilian speakers and the only one who has never served in a branch of the military, joined notable military presenters at the conference including Gen. (Ret.) David Petraeus, former commander of United States Central Command and former CIA director. He discussed the public relations and crisis communications lessons learned regarding past detainee operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba, and how they could be handled more effectively.
“I was asked to provide guidance on how not to repeat the mistakes that were made from a public relations perspective at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay, which ultimately hurt the reputation of the US around the world,” said Garcia, who believes that ISIS emerged from the failure of the US to get the story right. “I gave lessons from my basic crisis communication course, including the Abu Ghraib case study that I teach in the NYU SPS (PRCC) program, and it was extremely well received.”
Garcia ascribed his involvement with the military to NYU SPS, where he has taught for 33 years. He recounted that a former student who had returned from Operation Desert Storm in 1991 introduced him to his commanding officer who proceeded to invite Garcia to teach communications to the Marines. Garcia then went on to teach at the military’s Defense Information School and at the Air Force War College, and now with the US Army.
“What is fascinating about members of the military is how open they are to a civilian perspective on how to do things better,” added Garcia. “The senior officers have deep life experiences, but I have yet to find one who was not eager to learn more. They are more than warriors, they are leaders.”
Garcia offered three tips for crisis management, regardless of the type of organization or predicament: take the crisis seriously quickly, show you care quickly, and fix the problem, don’t just spin it. “In a crisis,” he noted, “people will forgive you if you accept responsibility for what you did.”
At NYU SPS, Garcia received the Dean's Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1990 and 2017, the Dean's Award for Outstanding Service, and the 30-Year Service in Teaching Award, among others. He is the author of Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, published in 2020. He also is the author of The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis, which was published in 2017 and was named one of the Best Crisis Management Books of All Time by Book Authority. He is president of Logos Consulting Group and executive director of the Logos Institute for Crisis Management & Executive Leadership.