How high-octane practice drills can save you in a real PR crisis

Realistic simulations can reveal crucial weaknesses in your team, help you prepare for specific emergencies and give you an edge when it really hits the fan.

When it comes to crisis response, practice makes perfect—or at least makes you better prepared.

Hospitals, police and fire departments stage simulations and practice drills to prepare for emergencies. Military units conduct combat exercises. Schools run regular fire drills.

Now, public relations and corporate communications departments are embracing practice drills that reproduce fast-moving PR crises—some with a frightening degree of reality.

Crisis managers typically prepare contingency plans for various scenarios—including a list of roles and responsibilities—but what happens when critics urge boycotts and reporters start calling? In this hyper-connected day and age, crises can quickly erupt and require an all-hands-on-deck response from human resources, brand management, lawyers, executives and possibly even the board of directors.

‘Blood money for ink’

A New York Times reporter, editor and photographer recently participated in a PR crisis simulation run by CommCore Consulting Group. In the simulation, one of the newspaper’s main investors had become the largest shareholder in a company that was the world’s largest polluter. The Times faced a realistic barrage of social media outrage, including 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 in protest, and calls for a boycott grew louder. Hackers announced plans to attack the company with a malicious virus.

Representatives from CommCore created the storyline and played the role of inquisitive reporters. They even created an ominous video featuring 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.”

Tips for improving PR crisis simulations

Simulations can be valuable, but some are more useful than others. Experts offer these tips to get the most benefit out of drills:

1. You should have an overall plan. Identify three types of crises that would damage your business the most, and then practice running through your complete plan and social media response, recommends Sarah Dawley at Hootsuite. Run the drills biannually. “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.

2. Authenticity is essential. Participants must feel like they’re in a real crisis. Online news articles, social media comments and messages from key 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 perhaps even an on-camera interview—can heighten the realism. Scenarios work best when they overlap a company or industry issue, a community concern or social media outcry. Scenarios should be based on real facts and reports.

3. Decisions should 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.

4. Trainers who can push are crucial. It’s vital that consultants running a simulation have an acute knowledge of the business and that they 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 even a receptionist.

Realistic crisis simulations can help PR teams react faster and with more confidence when a real situation arises. Practice drills can also reveal where weaknesses exist. In this era, there’s no such thing as being too prepared for bad news.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog.

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