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Cronkite professor assists with China quake crisis

June 18, 2008

Xu Wu was in his native country of China when a massive earthquake struck on May 12. Wu has been there ever since, witnessing first hand the horror and intense sorrow felt by the Chinese people after the tragedy.

“I knew many people who were impacted by the quake, covered the quake or helped the quake victims. The images are unbearable. I cried three times over the past month,” Wu says.

Wu, an assistant professor in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is in China working on a dean’s research grant for a project entitled, “China’s Olympic PR & Crisis management: A Case Study of Chinese Government’s Crisis Management Skills, Before, During and After the March 2008 Riots in Tibet.”

After the earthquake, his work efforts expanded to encompass quake crisis management.

Wu was in one of the largest cities in China - Guangzhou - giving a lecture on crisis communications to students at Sun Yat-Sen University when the earthquake hit 800 miles away.

“From May 21 until now, I have been in Beijing working with various media organizations, government agencies and research institutes on China’s response to the catastrophic 8.0-scale earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people and left more than 5 million people homeless,” Wu says.

China is still in the painful process of dealing with secondary disasters after the earthquake. The quake showcased many moving, heroic moments among the Chinese people but it also exposed loopholes in the country’s crisis response structure, risk communications and non-governmental organizational systems.

“The upcoming Olympics further complicated the recovery phase of the disaster relief, not only physically, but also psychologically. It is a huge test to the Chinese government and to the Chinese people,” Wu says.

Wu originally went to China in March to assist with public relations in crisis management planning prior to the Beijing Olympics. He was presenting a paper on the topic to journalism students and government officials at Tsinghua University when he first heard of violent demonstrations and riots that were spinning out of control in Tibet.

“It was not until two days later when I landed in the United States that the pictures and videos of those chaotic scenes began to surface on YouTube, BBC, CNN and then all the major media outlets in the world,” Wu says. He returned to China in May after receiving the dean’s research grant and plans to come back to the United States in July.

His views on crisis communications have appeared in several newspapers and news magazines. Wu was recently interviewed by the The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Reuters. He is a regular contributor to the second largest daily newspaper in China, Global Times, and he has written for Oriental Outlook Weekly, China’s equivalent to Newsweek. He has talked about China’s crisis management during the earthquake on “Dialogue,” China Central Television’s English program that is broadcast worldwide. He also discussed the Olympics and China’s public relations efforts on Al Jazeera’s English Channel and the BBC’s “World Today.”

Officials in China have benefited from Wu’s lectures, training and consultation sessions about communicating with people from other countries and foreign media during a crisis. One of the challenges he has sought to overcome are common misperceptions among Americans about China.

“Misperceptions lead to misjudgments, and misjudgments lead to misfortunes. Both Americans and Chinese cannot afford these types of misperceptions and misjudgments anymore, given the interdependent and globalized world. For example, more than 95 percent of Americans have no idea what Shanghai looks like,” Wu says. “Shanghai has more than 4,500 skyscrapers, all of them built within the past 20 years.”

Wu grew up in China and worked as a national correspondent for the national Xinhua News Agency before he resigned in 1997 and formed a public relations agency in Beijing. After deciding to pursue his graduate degree at the University of Florida, he stayed in the “swamp” for five years before joining the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2005. His research focuses on China’s online media, international public relations, crisis management, political communication and mass communication theories. His book, “Chinese Cyber Nationalism,” was published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Groups in 2007.