The Rise of Crisis Simulations in the Workplace

By David Wagner
Partner, The Carter Group

The ability to communicate information, ideas and positions clearly and concisely is a core skill needed by everyone, whether in public or private life. The inability to do so often leads to a loss of time, tempers and opportunities.

Firms around the world are increasingly using simulation training for staff at all levels, with a focus on those whose job it is to persuade both internal and external stakeholders. The skills taught in this type of training are vital not only for everyday communications, but also for managing the media during a crisis.

The importance of simulation training
Simulation as a training tool has been used since the early 20th century in various contexts, to enhance a participant’s overall learning experience. Perhaps its most widely recognised application is with flight simulators in the aviation industry.

Pilots must spend time in simulators to help them envision what might occur in a difficult situation, when a split-second mistake can cost hundreds of lives.

Using simulators, pilots are presented with a scenario and asked how they would react. For instance, they might hear, “Lightning has hit the plane and the power has gone out. What should you do?”

Simulations are particularly useful in crisis situations. They allow those who must make critical decisions to practice how they should respond in such situations, even under stress.

Or, imagine you work at an embassy and, suddenly, there is an earthquake. People from your country come to the embassy for shelter, but you have no food or water to give them. What should you do?

Then again, what if someone launched a sexual harassment lawsuit against your firm and threatened to go to the media with the allegations. What should you do?

These scenarios are just a few of the topics covered in crisis training sessions for company spokespersons, who are presented with a situation that requires their quick assessment and response. For the management of an organisation in the public eye, simulation training is invaluable for public relations staff.

The results of crisis training can be profound.

In the airline industry, lives are saved because the people in charge of saving them are better prepared. In a firm or organisation, media response during a crisis can help preserve public image, customer satisfaction and even stock valuations.

How does crisis simulation work?
While there are many learning activities that can sharpen a person’s knowledge or improve their skills and attitudes, crisis simulations are used to train individuals through carefully planned activities.

The training generally focuses on the application of knowledge and the use of skills. Both of these elements are key to understanding the importance of such training.

It is, after all, one thing for a pilot to learn the theory of landing a plane in a river, but quite another for the pilot to apply this acquired knowledge without having practiced it in a controlled environment. That is where media and crisis training come in.

They enable spokespersons to manage fast-moving, problematic situations to successful conclusions. A simulation does not need to be radical for it to be effective.

Role play is a common simulation technique. The facilitator will set up a scenario, and participants are assigned different roles. A participant’s designated role usually will relate to their actual job, but simulation also provides opportunities for people to act out roles they do not normally perform.

One important aspect of such simulations is that participants are given the opportunity to consider a scenario from not only their own perspective, but also that of others. It helps them refine their ability to respond quickly, and to deliver key messages effectively. This is necessary when dealing with the media.

Simulations enhance participants’ abilities, understanding and overall control in a given situation. Such criteria are vital, given the importance of controlling the media in terms of reaching established targets of messages.

In the business world, simulation training is most often used in the following areas.

• Project management
• Disaster management
• Event management
• Incident management
• Call centre management
• Business strategy and planning
• Safety and risk assessment
• Corporate governance and business ethics
• Product announcements/recalls

While simulations also are used in other areas, the above subjects top the list, and each involves handling a crisis and, possibly, engaging the media.

The scope of developing and conducting such simulations can be quite detailed. The course must be designed, additional resources may be required, tasks need to be identified and coordinated, and quality must be assured. The processes can be streamlined using simple, yet effective, techniques that have proved useful in training.

If simulations are not realistic or adequately organised, people who must engage the media and their employing organisations often suffer.

A case in point is the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Not only was there a horrific visual impact—as millions of barrels of oil were spewed into the sea—but the comments of the then-chief executive of British Petroleum, Tony Hayward, only caused further immeasurable damage to the firm’s reputation.

Quoted as making such comments as, “I want my life back,” he was portrayed by the media as callous regarding the 11 people who had died as a result of the blowout on the oilrig.

Ultimately, Hayward was forced to resign; yet his words will remain in the public consciousness for years to come. This is clearly an example of a failed media interaction.