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PR crisis simulationsHospitals and police and fire departments stage simulations and practice drills to prepare for man-made and natural disasters. The Armed Services practice military exercises. Schools practice fire and lock-down drills.

Public relations and corporate communications departments are embracing practice drills that reproduce fast-moving PR crises. The best of the drills include a frightening degree of reality.

Crisis managers typically prepare contingency plans for various possibilities, together with a list of employees who implement them. But simulation participants may find that developing a crisis management plan is easier than implementing the plan when critics start urging boycotts and reporters start calling. Ideally, the simulation involves other departments in addition to PR including legal, human resources and brand management. The simulation can also reach into the C-suite and the Board of Directors.

‘Blood Money for Ink’

A New York Times reporter, editor and photographer participated in a PR crisis simulation run by CommCore Consulting Group.  In the simulation, one of the newspaper’s main institutional investors had become the largest shareholder in a company that was the world’s largest polluter. The Times faced angry posts on social media, accusations it was “exchanging blood money for ink,” and demands that it cut ties with the investor. Activists planned to picket the newspaper, reporters and columnists quit, and calls for a boycott grew louder. Hackers announced plans to attack the company with a computer virus.

Representatives from CommCore created the storyline, played inquisitive reporters, and created an ominous video of a masked hacker.

“The whole goal is faster reaction time, faster recognition of the issues and hopefully faster getting the issues off the front page or out of social media,” Andrew D. Gilman, CommCore’s chief executive, told the Times. “You can’t prevent any crisis from happening. But you can shorten the duration — you can lessen the impact and do better preparation.”

Actually, of course, companies can prevent many crises from happening by always making good and ethical business decisions, by evaluating in advance potential consequences of business decisions, and by training all employees in the fundamentals of business ethics.

Tips to Improve PR Crisis Simulations

While simulations can be valuable, some are better than others. Experts offer these tips to get the most from the drills.

The entire plan. Identify the three types of crises that would impact your business the most, and then practice running through your complete plan and social media response, recommends Sarah Dawley at Hootsuite. Run the drills bi-annually. “You’ll learn valuable lessons about how long it actually takes to execute your plans and can identify gaps or weak spots that require more attention,” Dawley writes.

Realism.  Participants need to feel like they’re in a real crisis. Online news articles, social media comments, and messages from shareholder and other stakeholders should be believable, says Tom Clive, an associate partner at Sermelo. Negative news stories should reflect the editorial style and tone of the publication. TV reporters demanding access to the CEO – and an on-camera CEO interview can heighten the realism.

Decisions have consequences. Effective simulations show how participants’ decisions cause reactions and lead to new scenarios. Participants should also be able to review their decisions after the session.

Realistic scenarios. Scenarios work best when they overlap a company issue, a wider industry issue, a social issue or a social media outcry. Scenarios should be based on real facts and reports.

Trainers that can push. It’s vital that consultants running a simulation have an acute knowledge of the business, and aren’t afraid to push participants along the way, Clive says. Crisis specialists should be comfortable playing different roles: journalists, customers, the company CEO or receptionist.

Bottom Line: Outside consultants can create communications crises drills that feel remarkably realistic and challenge a PR department’s abilities to the limits. The simulations can improve how crisis management teams react and reveal where organizations need to improve their responses. PR teams that have undergone a crisis simulation are better-prepared to handle an actual crisis.