Crafting the Perfect Crisis Simulation

March 19, 2021

The best crisis simulations follow a recipe, leaving your team better prepared to react.

Creating the perfect culinary recipe can take years. Ingredient measurements are carefully calibrated, spices are meticulously added and subtracted, and numerous taste tests occur before the perfect combination is uncovered.

A similar process occurs when developing a crisis simulation.

Kith has spent years developing the perfect recipe for crisis simulations for our clients. When we put together a crisis simulation, we often follow a step-by-step process–much like a recipe– for building a credible and beneficial crisis simulation. By following this process and mixing in a few extra spices, we’ve been able to create countless exercises that embolden teams to be at their best during a real crisis.

Crisis simulations are the best tool when it comes to arming your organization for crises. These simulations, when done correctly, test your team in a highly credible scenario and give the feeling of a real crisis. Teams are required to respond with the speed and accuracy that they would if things truly were on fire, but are able to do so in a “safe” environment without the potential for negative reputational consequences.

Another reason we advocate for crisis simulations is because of the concept of active learning. Researcher Edgar Dale suggests that people learn best by doing (active learning) rather than reading or listening to a lecture (passive learning). During the 1960s, Dale theorized that learners retain more information by what they do as opposed to what is heard, read, or observed. His methods inform what is today known as experiential learning or experiential training, where participants learn by doing.

So how do you create a crisis simulation of your own? Kith has spent years developing its own recipe for what we know makes the best crisis simulation, and we’re happy to share it with you.

Like many recipes, the recipe for a crisis simulation has a few required ingredients where no substitutions are allowed. Without these required ingredients, your crisis simulation won’t give you the desired result. Leaving out a required ingredient in a recipe does the same thing– you’ll get a messy or foul-tasting result.

The first required ingredient for a crisis simulation is a realistic scenario. You can’t just pick any random scenario– it has to be one that is realistic for you and your organization. If you’re a food & ag company, realistic scenarios for you would include a foodborne illness or product recall. If you’re a healthcare company, a data breach may be the best scenario for you. It’s important that when you’re creating your scenario you consider:

  • The likelihood this could happen to your organization/industry;
  • Whether your team would be the ones responding to the crisis, or if it would be handled by someone else (like general counsel or a dedicated task force);
  • If the severity of the issue is truly a crisis that would warrant an urgent response.

If you evaluate your scenario against these three criteria, you’re sure to have a realistic simulation scenario.

The second required ingredient is a crisis plan to test against during the scenario. A critical output of a crisis simulation is a gap analysis identifying where your team can improve.

Obviously, without a crisis plan to test, it’s more difficult for you to identify and repair weaknesses. Chances are you have a crisis plan you created years ago lying around somewhere– it’s probably stashed on a shelf in a white binder. Make sure you’re using the same crisis plan you’d use if a crisis struck tomorrow. You want the scenario to be real, but you need your response to be real, too.

The third required ingredient is the right participants. We understand the inclination to just include the communications team in a crisis simulation. It’s definitely easier to schedule. But think about the last crisis your team went through. Did you have complete autonomy in your response tactics?

Probably not.

You probably had to get approval from legal for reactive statements. Or loop in Government Relations if it involved a government agency or official. Maybe it was a cyberattack, and you had to work with your IT/data security team. People outside of comms are involved in your real crisis response, so they should all be involved in your crisis simulation.

Additionally, these participants should be active and engaged. We understand everyone is busy, but a crisis simulation is not something during which you can multitask. Crisis simulations need participants’ full attention, not just because it makes for a more engaging exercise, but because people learn better this way.

There are countless studies, the most famous being from Stanford, that says people who are multitasking cannot pay attention or recall information as well as those who stick to one task at a time.

If you want your organization to truly benefit from the crisis simulation, they need to be 100 percent present for the entirety of the simulation. We know this makes scheduling a bit trickier, but we can promise you it’s worth it.

These are the required ingredients for a crisis simulation recipe, but you can add your own ingredients to further customize or “spice up” your simulation. Our two favorite spices are:

  • Technology: We partner with Social Simulator to create a virtual environment that lends an added layer of authenticity to a simulation. Participants are met with posts from Friendbook (which looks quite similar to that little social media site called Facebook), viral Tweeter posts (aka Twitter), and other media pieces that make the scenario look and feel real. Most crises are unfolding online on social media, so being able to create a realistic social media environment–where tweets or Facebook posts are going viral and you’re getting real-time demands from your customers and media– is a huge benefit.
  • Role Players: In Kith’s Crisis3 simulations, we utilize role players who pose as members of the media or other third parties. These role players call participants demanding answers, much like media or third parties would do in a real crisis, and put pressure on participants to react quickly.

Crisis simulations are, in our opinion, truly the best way to train and evaluate your team when it comes to crisis readiness. And with the right recipe, you can create a crowd-pleasing simulation that will leave your team well-prepared for when a crisis strikes.

Sound interesting? You can learn more about our simulations here.

Filed under: Blog | Crisis Planning


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.