5 tips for a successful crisis simulation

Setting up a plan and building a response team are just the first steps. Putting those elements—and people—through the paces requires diligence and more than a little imagination.

How to perform a crisis simulation

Successful sports teams and great orchestras understand the importance of effective practice and preparation. 

Conductors spend hours rehearsing a single score to identify the changes needed to improve. Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

This same philosophy applies to crisis preparation. Organizations that adhere to this philosophy are better able to preserve and protect their reputation when the next crisis hits. Plus, it saves money. A study by Marsh Insurance says that an organization saves $7 for each dollar spent on preparation. 

A simulation is an effective tool to develop the perfect practice skills and teamwork needed to successfully work a crisis. Here are five tips to ensure that your simulation does the best job in preparing your team:

1. Have a plan. A good crisis plan will offer direction and quicker decision-making opportunities for the team during a simulation. Just as in a real crisis, as events unfold, the team can use essential plan elements such as decision trees, templates and designated social media channels to respond to the issues. Scrambling for basic information slows response time. Social media runs at the speed of light; organizations that are slow to respond can get lapped on the track.

2. Team matters. Most organizations have a designated group of leaders tasked to handle a crisis. The simulation should at a minimum include those employees who represent the essential departments. A typical team is made up of legal, HR, IT, safety/security, communications/investor relations, commercial/sales, technical, manufacturing, C-suite and others, depending on the organization. The advantage of a simulation is the opportunity to expand the group and include those who are the No. 2 and even No. 3 of each essential position. A crisis seldom happens during regular business hours, so the lead team member might be unavailable. Organizations must build a “back bench” of experienced crisis leaders.

3. Make it real. A tabletop exercise consisting of bulleted facts on a PowerPoint slide is a start to a discussion, but not a true simulation. In a real crisis, a team is bombarded with media calls, irate customers, activist groups and social media snipes all happening in real time. A simulation should mirror this approach so a participant can experience the tension, heart rate, sweat and confusion that are typical during a crisis. Pre-produced TV news packages, fake commercials, activist group tweets, misinformation and company social media templates are examples of how information is presented and processed—and even twisted—during a simulation. At the end of the day participants should feel tired and spent (and maybe ready for happy hour).

4. Stretch the limits. Though it’s important to practice likely events such as workplace violence or product recalls, it’s also necessary to explore the unexpected. Sometimes companies are launched into a crisis due to no fault of their own. Resist the urge to say, “That would never happen.” Who would have predicted hacked vehicles, cyber breaches or #MeToo? A good simulation should push the envelope and expand the possibilities of the “what if.”

5. Learn and repeat. A plumber will pressure-test a pipe to detect defects and leaks. An effective simulation “pressure-tests” both the crisis plan and the team to determine strengths and weaknesses. A gap analysis can identify vulnerabilities and prioritize how they are resolved. For instance, a simulation may reveal that an organization becomes paralyzed because there isn’t a chain of command if a main decision-maker becomes unavailable. This needs a quick fix. Other issues such as fact-gathering and template writing may take more time. 

Fixing the crisis plan and improving the team do not constitute the final outcome. People come and go. Situations change. Conduct regular simulations because just as in sports, perfect practice is necessary to stay at the top of your game.  

Andrew Gilman is CEO of CommCore Consulting Group. Dale Weiss is senior vice president and executive producer of CommCore’s PressureTest Crisis Simulation.

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