Just as schools and businesses run occasional fire drills, your company should periodically pressure test your crisis communications plan. To truly understand if and how the plan will work, your management team and employees need to see how your strategy will play out in a realistic scenario.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to conduct a crisis simulation. During a crisis simulation, your company’s designated response team must respond to a fictional disaster scenario and use your crisis communications plan to react accordingly. If executed appropriately, this exercise will enable you to pinpoint and address gaps in your plan well in advance of an actual crisis.
Use the following tips to run a successful crisis simulation.
1. Conduct simulations regularly
Over time, factors within your crisis communications strategy, such as your leadership team, department structure, and messaging approach, can change and evolve. With that in mind, it’s important to conduct simulations on a regular basis — at least once a year, but preferably twice. Conducting routine simulations can help you identify any new weaknesses and ensure your company is always ready for a true crisis.
2. Choose an appropriate difficulty level
A crisis simulation can test your company’s ability to manage a wide range of serious incidents, from a natural disaster to a product defect. Make sure to choose a scenario with an appropriate level of difficulty. A challenging simulation can build your team’s confidence and ensure they have a firm grasp on how to react in a real crisis. However, if the scenario is too difficult and the team fails to respond appropriately, they may instead experience a decrease in morale and confidence. The simulation should provide valuable lessons and practice without pushing your team past their breaking point.
3. Have a third party implement the scenario
Hiring a third party to plan and conduct the crisis simulation can help your team get the most value out of the exercise. This ensures that everyone is responding to an unknown issue, which allows your entire crisis response team and all company decision-makers to practice their response in real time. Third parties also typically have the resources and bandwidth to create more realistic scenarios that include elements such as mock media reports, TV packages, social media feeds, and investor reactions.
In addition, third parties can help coordinate large-scale practice sessions, even with teams distributed across multiple cities, countries, and time zones.
4. Make the scenario as realistic as possible
Reacting to a set of facts listed on a document or in a PowerPoint deck can certainly start a discussion, but it probably won’t spark the type of response that would be necessary in a true crisis situation. The more realistic you make your scenario — including external factors and complications such as simulated news updates, social media commentary, government or regulatory inquiries, share price impact, and tangible reactions and inquiries — the more value your team will get from the exercise.
5. Reveal information on a rolling basis
Like in a real crisis, your crisis simulation should reveal information on a rolling basis, rather than all at once. The scenario should unfold on a schedule that mirrors the information phases of a real crisis, from initial confusion to information overload. This will mimic the stressful environment, along with conflicting or incomplete information, that an actual crisis would create.
6. Involve all relevant and affected stakeholders
The simulation should require participation from leaders and teams across the entire company. For instance, instruct the communication and PR team to work from its crisis communication plan and resources, including using templates to create messages, draft statements and press releases, compose social media updates, advise management, brief spokespeople and take calls from journalists.
Instruct participants to take the situation seriously and interact as they would if the scenario was real and if each decision made had real consequences. That means you won’t be able to script the entire scenario from the beginning; it will need to evolve based on the decisions your team makes.
7. Simulate press conferences and interviews
A company spokesperson is a critical component of your crisis response team. Typically, your chosen spokesperson is someone on the leadership team, as they have already established trust with the public and have experience issuing statements and speaking with the media. They will be more equipped to clearly deliver messages with authority and credibility.
However, even if your spokespeople are experienced and well spoken, it is usually worth it to test and practice their communication skills through mock media events. It can be helpful to have outside trainers to role-play journalists, so you can simulate press conferences and ambush interviews in real time.
With these tips, you can conduct a crisis simulation that effectively highlights your plan’s strengths and weaknesses. By taking the time to identify and address gaps in your strategy, you can be confident that your team will be ready if — and when — you encounter a real-life crisis. For a more in-depth look into how to develop an effective response plan, download our eBook, “The Best Defense Is Preparation: A Guide to Crisis Communications Planning.”