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

Martin Waxman

Martin Waxman, MCM, APR, is a senior advisor to Spin Sucks and runs a consultancy, Martin Waxman Communications. He leads digital and social media training workshops, conducts AI research, and is a LinkedIn Learning author and one of the hosts of the Inside PR podcast. Martin teaches social media at McMaster University, the Schulich School of Business, Seneca College, and the UToronto SCS and regularly speaks at conferences and events across North America.

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