Martin Waxman

Crisis Simulation: The Next Best Thing to Being There

By: Martin Waxman | August 14, 2014 | 

Crisis Simulations: The Next Best Thing to Being ThereBy Martin Waxman

When it comes to an online issue or crisis, the question these days is not an if, but a when.

And you need to ask yourself if you and your organization are really prepared.

Thanks to social media, anyone can have a loud voice and a megaphone (a tough combination to beat).

Online issues sprout up like weeds and can hit you from any direction.

And unless you’re a crisis communications consultant like Melissa Agnes, who lives and breathes crisis management, most of us do not have that much day-to-day hands-on experience.

And that’s probably a good thing.

It can also be a bad one when it comes to getting a handle on an issue that’s rearing its ugly head and gaining momentum in real time.

When you’re in the midst of a crisis, you want to operate at peak performance, think and act quickly, but also be smart, empathetic, and strategic.

One wrong step in any direction can take you down a more perilous path.

The Marathon Mentality

I’m not a runner (nor do I play one on TV), but I do know that all my friends who participate in marathons don’t just show up on event day—they spend months training and preparing beforehand.

That’s the same attitude we need to have when it comes to an online crisis.

The first step is developing an issues/crisis plan that’s updated on a regular basis.

It should identify who the players are, how to contact them in any emergency, when to escalate, and what resources you’ll need (video, a dark site that can be activated, flow of information, etc.).

All of this begins by having a listening program in place.

Develop a Crisis Simulation

So you’ve got the plan, updated it three months ago and are monitoring your social streams—that’s enough, isn’t it?

As Gini Dietrich might say, “Um, no…”

How can you be expected to be your best if you only have something on paper and haven’t actually done a real-life crisis simulation?

In one of the courses I teach at University of Toronto SCS, Advanced Practices in Digital Reputation Management, we spend the first part of each semester learning about reputation, trust, and what constitutes an issue or a crisis.

This culminates with a full-blown crisis role-playing scenario that takes place during one of the classes.

The approach is simple but effective, and you can adapt the steps and replicate it in your workplace.

Use Your Imagination

Create a worst-case scenario for a crisis or issue that could happen to your organization.

Make it really bad.

Write two or three paragraphs describing what took place and no more—in a crisis, we often have to make decisions based on limited information.

Set the Ground Rules

Bring the full crisis team together in one room and explain the process.

Because my class is three hours long, that’s all the time students have to react to their crisis, develop a strategy, write messages, come up with tactics, develop responses for social platforms, create a timeline, and produce a short video and written response.

Three hours seems like an optimal amount of time to get this done.

Consider Several Outcomes

Don’t just develop one approach and pat yourself on the back.

Always think of a couple of alternatives that include exactly what you’d do to adapt if new information came to light or the situation changed.

And don’t forget to be transparent, apologize, and take responsibility.

Bring Some Candy

And coffee and snacks.

You and the team are going to be locked away for a chunk of time and you’ll want to keep your energy up.

Present Your Strategy

At the end of the three hours, present your full written approach and video to your PR/crisis consultants and/or c-suite and get their feedback.

Ask them if, in a real-world situation, they would be confident executing the strategy you created.

Why or why not?

Be Honest

Evaluate where you believe you did well, how the team performed, whether or not you kept your cool, and where your weaknesses are.

Adjust for the next time.

Do this twice a year and you’ll be more confident and prepared when an issue or crisis does occur.

Have you lived through a crisis at work? Can you share any tips you’ve learned along the way?

photo credit: darkmatter via photopin cc

About Martin Waxman

Martin Waxman is executive vice president for our Canadian partner firm, Thornley Fallis. He is a social media and communications strategist, founder of three PR agencies, blogger at myPALETTE, Inside PR co-host, social media instructor, and former fiction writer, comedy MC, and Winnipegger.

  • martinwaxman

    EmilyKantner SpinSucks edewal ginidietrich Thanks!

  • I’m glad you laid this out Martin! I think often when people hear “do a crisis stimulation,” they don’t really think “actually do it,” don’t just think about it, or “theoretically” go through it DO IT. Great tips for actually making that happen.

  • martinwaxman

    lkpetrolino clay_morgan SpinSucks – Thanks for sharing the post!

  • LauraPetrolino Thanks! It’s something I’ve done in a lab setting (aka my class) and it really works well and keeps people on their toes. You can also see what opportunities or issues people may be missing in real time. Plus the candy/snacks are important!

  • Martin Waxman

    Thank you! I’m interested to hear if any readers have done simulations of their own and what tips they would add…

  • mlaffs

    martinwaxman SpinSucks awesome and so relevant to the current news cycle!

  • martinwaxman

    mlaffs Thanks. It always surprises me how few orgs actually do a real-time crisis test… SpinSucks

  • It makes perfect sense .. there are so many situations where simulations are helpful. I can imagine it would be wildly helpful when it comes to keeping your wits about you in a crisis.

  • clay_morgan

    martinwaxman lkpetrolino SpinSucks Anytime! Love sharing great content.

  • lkpetrolino

    clay_morgan martinwaxman SpinSucks Clay is just trying to get his Klout score up and he knows you’re a big deal Martin! Totally using…

  • clay_morgan

    lkpetrolino martinwaxman SpinSucks Klout!

  • martinwaxman

    clay_morgan Thx! I thought our posts were complementary SpinSucks -And lkpetrolino re Klout, whatever works 🙂

  • Eleanor Pierce Thanks Eleanor! It’s also really interested seeing how people react and if they can stay calm. I try to keep the adrenalin going throughout by announcing how much time has passed on a regular basis :).

  • @lkpetrolino clay_morgan martinwaxman SpinSucks The thing Clay needs to know is to connect with the right PEOPLE who know the “special” HASHTAGS to make that special #kloutbump happen …

  • Fabulous points, Martin. Doing the runthrough also helps people put components of managing a crisis in context. I was trained to be an acolyte once but taught pieces of the job — not until I was actually serving did I go through an entire service end to end. Some parishioners *may* or *may not* have had their communion delayed because of that. Not a crisis, but an example of why running it through beginning to end makes a difference.

  • I don’t know if it’s funny or scary that you quoted me. And were so accurate! My favorite is “bring some candy.” Clearly we need to have more meetings together.

  • Gini Dietrich


  • martinwaxman

    coledouglas7 TEAM_Solutions robscoms SpinSucks profitpath4biz StickyBranding pops131 CoSIDAnews ginidietrich Thanks!

  • pops131

    martinwaxman Thanks for the mention,much appreciated.Happy tweets 🙂

  • Great point, Paula. Its good to have dress rehearsals. Thanks!

  • Glad you enjoyed it. Maybe I’ve just got a good ear for dialogue … And yes, we should!

  • martinwaxman

    LTPR JonMikelBailey SpinSucks thanks for sharing the post!

  • What a great idea. And it’s only three hours, so no one can say they don’t have time.

  • Jen Novotny Thanks! I think the key is to keep it a concentrated time – similar to what happens during a real crisis – to get the adrenalin flowing and ensure people get an idea of the pressure and learn how to stay cool and keep their good judgment.

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  • Ambercarl

    I am researching
    this topic for use in a future business I am thinking about starting. Thank
    you for this information, it has been educational and helpful to me

    do I stop this?.