PR crisis simulations, PR crisis communications, PR crisis managementMany organizations have created PR crisis management plans. Far fewer practice them.

Almost two-thirds of business executives have a crisis management plan in place, reveals a survey by PR News and CS&A International. Out of that group, almost 40% have never conducted a crisis exercise, and 21% said they weren’t sure how often their company practices the plan.

About a third or more say their organizations have difficulty reacting quickly, measuring the impact of a crisis, and communicating between departments quickly and efficiently during a crisis. Lack of practice is a main reason for those difficulties.

“The process may be clearly noted in a crisis plan, but if people don’t know it and don’t practice it, they will tackle each crisis by improvisation,” Dirk Lenaerts, senior partner at CS&A International, told PR News.

Organizations typically prepare contingency plans to react to various possibilities and list key employees who implement them. But simulation participants may find that developing a crisis management plan is easier than implementing the plan when critics start boycotts and reporters start calling.

Hospitals 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 can likewise benefit from practice drills.

‘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.

Follow a plan. Following a well-developed crisis communications plan, with decision trees, appointed spokespeople and designated communications channels, will lead to faster and smarter decisions.

It’s a team effort. 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.

Create a deep bench. In addition to key managers, name back-up players, recommend CommCore Consulting Group CEO Andrew Gilman and Dale Weiss, senior vice president and executive producer of CommCore’s PressureTest Crisis Simulation, in an article for PR Daily. Include number two and even number three people in the simulations. Crises rarely occur during normal business hours. The lead team member may not be available.

Make it real. The best drills reproduce fast-moving PR crises with a frightening degree of reality. Participants need to feel like they’re in a real crisis. Online news articles, social media comments, and messages from shareholders 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.

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.

Practice different situations. Don’t assume that that your organization won’t face an undesirable situation, such as a data breach, product recall or unsavory actions of a top executive. Resist the urge to say, “That would never happen.” A good simulation should push the envelope and expand the possibilities of the “what if,” say Gilman and Weiss.

Monitor the situation. Ongoing media monitoring and measurement is essential for PR crisis management. In both real and simulated crises, a media monitoring and measurement service can reveal how sentiment toward your organization changes. A monitoring tool can also help prevent a crisis by revealing negative mentions and declining sentiment.

Learn from the drill. Analyze the team’s performance to find areas needing improvement. Consider the strength of your chain of command, availability of key decision makers, and prepared responses.

Practice regularly. Regular PR crisis simulations are vital. Run the drills bi-annually, recommends Sarah Dawley at Hootsuite. “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.

Bottom Line: PR crisis plans won’t help if they sit in a folder gathering dust. Like athletes practicing for tournaments, business teams that practice PR crisis simulations will perform better when a real crisis strikes. Outside consultants can create communications crises drills that feel remarkably realistic and challenge a PR department’s abilities to the limits.

This article was first published on Sept. 19, 2017, and updated on Feb. 17, 2020.

Download the PR Crisis Handbook, a comprehensive guide on prevention and management of PR problems that can seriously damage corporate and brand reputation.