Surprise Attack: Executing a Crisis Simulation to Plan for the Unknown

On Aug. 1, 2008, Peppercom employees learned that four senior managers were missing following a quarterly summit in Singapore, leaving only one member of the management team-- co-founder and managing partner, Steve Cody--in New York to direct employees. As news broke that the team's plane crashed somewhere in the Pacific, the rest of the Peppercom staff had to manage the unfolding crisis.

If this scenario sounds too far-fetched to be true, that's because it is; lucky for everyone involved, the tragedy was nothing more than a simulation, which the agency's executives executed as part of its continuous learning program.

"We work with [clients'] PR people to devise realistic scenarios of crises that might occur. We escalate the crisis and ask the executives to work together to solve it. Then we score how the team did, and have them evaluate themselves," Cody says in reference to the crisis simulations Peppercom plans for clients. "But, in this particular instance, we had never walked the walk and gone through a full-blown crisis simulation."

Cody's admission points to a key question in the context of management and agency/client relations: How can you teach others something you yourself have never learned? Public relations executives are frequently tasked to issue press releases, maintain blogs, develop internal communications strategies, launch products and plan events for clients, all of which (in theory) they have been trained to do.

But crises are an entirely different animal. They are unpredictable, often appear out of nowhere and can sometimes be too far out of left field to believe; but, as unlikely as Peppercom's scenario seems on paper, having the experience of going through the steps of crisis management equipped the agency's employees to handle clients' future crises with the grace and wisdom that can only come from experience.

Communications managers can take the following actions to execute crisis simulations within their own organizations and, in turn, empower their employees to be savvier in the heat of battle.

*Commit to it. In order for a crisis simulation to be held effectively within an organization, it can't be an afterthought or add-on to a different internal education initiative. "We build [the crisis simulation] into our regular monthly training sessions," Cody says. "That is step one for any agency: Allocate time. It's the price of admission for every PR firm."

*Craft the scenario. The initial crisis should be developed almost like a narrative, where the "informer" in the office (most likely a senior manager) announces the situation to employees. This will be the person who knows every detail of the crisis (the initial "discovery," when and how the media picks it up, the various inaccuracies that will arise in coverage, etc.) and will reveal them to employees as the simulation unfolds.

While this executive should shape a cohesive story so the simulation's trajectory stays on track, he/she shouldn't give away too much too fast; the unknowns of a crisis will often present the best opportunities for employees to respond in unexpectedly creative and strategic ways.

That said, complete surprise attacks aren't the best way to assess a team's coping mechanism. According to Jim Lukaszewski, president of The Lukaszewski Group, "The purpose of drills is to assess readiness for various specific scenarios. Too many drills, even those that are planned, focus on deficiencies, weaknesses and mistakes. These are givens in crisis. I want to know where we are highly likely to get something right. Then I can choose those things I can afford to fix."

*Use all employees to role-play. "We turned the agency into separate teams, including existing Peppercom management, PR trade reporters, local New York media representatives and bloggers," Cody says. This process is key to a crisis simulation, as it is important to have different stakeholders represented to gauge the different ways they can react. But, when creating these breakout teams, they must be diverse and balanced to make the exercise valuable for everyone involved.

"Mix and match abilities," Cody advises. "You want a good mix of junior- and senior-level people so it's a learning experience. The senior people shouldn't necessarily direct the junior people, but they need to be there to answer questions and guide them."

While senior managers shouldn't give orders, though, they should be an integral part of the assessment.

"Another purpose of drills is to demonstrate management's responsibility in a crisis," Lukaszewski says. "These are: Setting the moral tone of the response; dealing with the victim dimension; finding resources; energizing responders; and occasional, spontaneous acts of leadership."

*Evaluate each group's approach in identifying unexpected needs. "In the heat of the moment, [PR professionals] often overlook entire stakeholder groups," Cody says. "Success in crisis communications is all about remembering your key audiences, and knowing what to say and when to say it. Establish that before you go through the crisis itself, because it's the best way to evaluate how you handled it." PRN


Steve Cody, [email protected]; Jim Lukaszewski, [email protected]

Measure Your Crisis Simulation With 'Cares'

When executing a crisis simulation and evaluating the team's success in managing it, Peppercom execs use their proprietary "CARES" diagnostic tool, which is excerpted below. (Source: Peppercom)

C: Composure and Collection of Information

1. Was the situation effectively secured and contained?

2. How composed was the team's reaction after initially hearing about the crisis?

3. Did the team give enough thought to the crisis before making any quick decisions or reactions?

4. Did the team ask all of the right questions to obtain what they needed to know?

5. Did the team collect all pertinent information available to be able to make next-step decisions?

A: Assessment of Situation

1. Did the team have enough/the right information to adequately assess the situation?

2. Did the assessment lead to making the right decision?

3. Did the team consider the potential impact on all constituents?

4. Did the team not only assess the crisis and what led to it, but also determine the likely next phases of the crisis?

5. Did the team effectively consider the short-term and long-term ramifications when making its assessment?

R: Reach and Make Decisions

1. Did the team create an effective crisis plan?

2. Were all constituents reached out to properly through the plan?

3. Was an objective(s) determined in terms of the best possible outcomes of the crisis based on the right steps taken?

4. Did the plan allow for these benchmarks to be reached?

5. Did the team establish a means to communicate quickly and frequently with one another?

E: Evalute, Monitor and Adjust

1. After the plan/decisions were made and executed, was the crisis effectively monitored to see what new developments would arise?

2. Were effective monitoring resources put in place to do this?

3. Did the team modify the plan based on new developments?

4. If changes in the plan were made, how effective and timely were they made?

5. Were new goals or benchmarks created to reflect this?

S: Success and Status Measurement

1. How effectively did you contain this crisis?

2. Did you succeed (given the situation)?

3. Were you able to measure against your benchmarks effectively?

4. Did you take into consideration the interests of all constituents and react/communicate accordingly?

5. Do you feel confident that your crisis plan/process will work well the next time a crisis occurs?