Crisis Drills: Operational/Comms Disconnect Is a Recipe for Disaster

There’s no question that the travails last year of BP, Toyota and other companies caught in a crisis web served as a wake-up call to most organizations. Crisis plans are being honed, and there’s a propensity now to practice, practice, practice.

It’s a development that Rob Burton, director of risk management for Long Beach, Calif.-based Blue Water Partners Global, has seen firsthand. Blue Water specializes in the operational aspects of crisis management and offers crisis simulation software. Once relegated to highly regulated industries like oil and natural gas—where crisis simulations are required on a regular basis, Burton is now signing clients across a variety of industries, including financial services and hospitality.

Blue Water’s “tabletop crisis exercises,” as the company calls them, help organizations coordinate operational response to a simulated crisis with their communications response. “That is, in fact, what would be required if an actual crisis were to occur,” says Burton.

And that collaboration—or lack thereof—between operations and communications is exactly what got BP into a heap of trouble, says David Kalson, executive managing director of PR agency RF Binder.

“BP was mostly focused on the operations side,” says Kalson. That focus left communications out to dry, he says. That’s why it’s important to build this collaboration between the two into crisis plans. “The plan itself must incorporate both communicators and subject matter operations experts,” says Kalson.

To help enable that synergy with its clients, RF Binder has partnered with Blue Water Partners Global to use their operational expertise and a robust crisis simulation platform called “GlobalTop.”

The simulation software allows organizations to run crisis drills more cost-effectively and on a global scale with less disruption of regular activities, says Kalson. Crisis scenarios play out in real time, and how those scenarios play out depends on the reaction of the stakeholders involved.

That’s an important component of any effective crisis drill, says Peter Duda, executive VP and head of the corporate issues group at Weber Shandwick.

Crisis simulations can’t be a static process, says Duda. “They should be ‘real’ and stress inducing,” he continues. “Because the reality is there will be stress.”

Weber Shandwick causes some stress with its own simulation program called FireBell. While Blue Water has historically focused on terrorist attacks and man-made disaster preparedness, FireBell is a social crisis simulator—covering snafus involving Twitter, Facebook and blogs. It tracks how people respond to certain posts and Twitter feeds. Duda says some simulation programs have fact patterns formulated ahead of time—while FireBell’s responses change depending on those of the participants.

Social media, continues Duda, has changed the crisis preparedness game. “Not to drill on social media as part of a larger crisis would be unrealistic today,” he says.


While improved technologies have made crisis drills more realistic, a key crisis component to remember is emotion, says Duda. “You can’t just look at a simulation as a procedural process,” he says. “It’s how you deal with the emotional aspects of the crisis, and how it’s affecting people that will make or break the response.” Other words of advice from Duda on crisis preparedness include:

Prepare for the worst. “Think of what you’re worst nightmare is,” says Duda. Then you’ll be prepared for just about anything.

Drills are not just a communications exercise. There must be a cross-functional team participating—compliance, marketing, customer service, executives, etc.

Think big picture. Team members must compartmentalize to accomplish specific tasks, but they should keep a broad view of the crisis in the backs of their minds.


Preparing for the worst is what Fraser Forsythe does on a regular basis. Forsythe is the manager of health, safety, security and environment at Canaport LNG, Canada’s largest liquefied natural gas terminal, which uses Blue Water’s simulation applications.

He believes that using this type of technology has a couple of benefits: First, the software allows people to respond interactively in real time; and second, more people in “far-flung corners of the world” can participate and watch the crisis unfold, including two important Canaport stakeholders—its partners and, perhaps most importantly, regulators who can monitor the proceedings as it happens (crisis drills are held on a quarterly basis).

What is Forsythe’s big take-way in crisis preparedness? “Effectiveness of communications within your own ranks is a big stumbling block,” says Forsythe. “People tend to do their own thing in a crisis, yet that can put people at risk and make things worse.”

As one who works in a high-risk industry and helps disseminate operational information externally in case of a crisis, Forsythe puts crises and the communications involved in perspective. In a crisis, he says, the operations staff is not in communications mode. “Priority one is to save the people inside and outside the plant, and priority two is save the environment,” says Forsythe. Then, and only then, does communications become part of the mix.

Those words mirror what crisis expert Eric Dezenhall said in a PR News Crisis Roundtable discussion recently (01/24/11 issue): “Corporate crises are PR problems to a smaller degree than people think. There was a direct correlation between when BP capped the well and the turn in media coverage. It was about solving the operational problem, not tweeting better.”

It’s clear that companies are seeing real value in crisis plans and simulations. This increased preparedness can only help bring more positive crisis outcomes—both operationally and via effective communications. PRN


Rob Burton,; David Kalson,; Peter Duda,; Fraser Forsythe,