Dolly Parton: Crisis Communications CEO Program Recap

Dolly Parton: Crisis Communications CEO

Speaker: Lance Kinney, Ph.D.

Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 | 11 a.m. – 12 p.m.


Top Takeaways

  • Dolly Parton is an angel on Earth.
  • Ask yourself, who is your Dolly Parton when a crisis occurs? Who is that forward-facing, morale building spokesperson?
  • Always a good reminder: Message consistency!
  • Consider media training for your CEO(s).


On Thursday, Nov. 19, members of the FPRA Capital Chapter learned about a real-world crisis communications example in which the multitalented, iconic Dolly Parton led her community toward healing and hope following tragedy.

Lance Kinney, Ph.D., associate professor and fellow with the University of Alabama Program in Sports Communication, walked us through several conventional crisis response approaches and how Dolly embodied one particular theory in an intuitive way.

In November 2016, wildfires broke out around Gatlinburg, Tenn., at the end of the community’s crucial holiday season. Driven by exceptional drought and winds, 18,000 acres burned. The tragic accident — started by a campfire — killed 14 people and caused a staggering financial loss for the community.

Dolly Parton, the embodiment of the Smoky Mountain area which raised her, sprang into action. What transpired was the organic growth of a crisis communications campaign with Dolly the ideal person at the helm for this moment in time.

Her Dollywood company was (and is) the largest area employer in the Gatlinburg area, as well as the state’s largest ticketed attraction, bringing in nearly 3 million annual visitors. As of 2017, Dollywood had an economic impact of $1.53 billion. The fires were a nightmare for the area and had a trickle-down impact on other industries that depended on the area attraction.

Dolly lent her money, celebrity and support to the properties involved. Dolly and her Dollywood Foundation, the business’ philanthropic arm, was well equipped and positioned to help. Synonymous with Dolly’s name, her Foundation had decades of respect as an advocate for literacy efforts across the world. The Foundation was able to shift quickly to help fire efforts through its existing managerial groundwork.

Dr. Kinney explained how Dolly’s actions matched what’s called the discourse of renewal theory. First, a recap of the theories applied in crisis response:

Benoit’s Image Repair Theory: Mitigation is the goal — you want to get ahead of what is threatening the organization and work to protect / restore its image immediately. Here, denial works…if you did not do it. There is often evasion of responsibility. Communicators attempt to reduce the offensiveness of the act. They seek forgiveness and should consider the quality of the apology.

Situational Crisis Theory (Coombs, 2007): The key variable here is the crisis type. It could be a victim cluster (external), like a natural disaster, workplace violence, product tampering. Eek! It could be an accident cluster (internal) and involve technical errors with or without harm — here folks often attempt to diminish, excuse or justify. Maybe there was a preventable cluster (internal) — think human error accidents, organizational misdeeds…here we see “apologia” strategies.

Then we have the Discourse of Renewal Theory: Especially useful for natural disasters, this is what our girl Dolly implemented, unknowingly yet brilliantly. Here, the organization involved is forward-facing and focuses on growth, opportunity, ethics, transformation and optimism. Here, a visible CEO embodies the organization’s mission or values. Dolly. Did. This.

Dolly is consistently on message and on brand. When you see her, you see where she’s from. She brought credibility from a reservoir of previous goodwill and community involvement.

Dolly was able to step into a leadership vacuum, and her Foundation morphed into the “My People Fund.” The impact was tremendous: 921 families received $10,000 each for things like groceries and gasoline. A telethon raised more than $10 million in funding for ongoing support programs, and the region saw record tourism in 2017 with an estimated $1.3 billion.

Media sophistication, public persona, star power, the ability to attract celebrities immediately…Dolly had it and she had it at the right time. She worked well beyond 9-5 and proved she will always love her Tennessee mountain home. Dolly Parton later received a humanitarian award for her efforts.

More reasons to love Dolly Parton: “23 Amazing Facts About Dolly Parton.”

— Allison Aubuchon, APR, President, Allison Aubuchon Communications (Member Since 2006)