stack of newspapers

What Makes a Successful Crisis Simulation

March 28, 2024

“Practice makes perfect,” the saying goes. When it comes to crisis management, “practice makes prepared.”

Periodic crisis exercises help teams build muscle memory, remember their crisis response plans, and identify gaps in that plan, the skill set, or the people responsible for executing it. Far better to find out there’s a critical flaw in your crisis response capability in the safety of a quiet conference room than when everything is on the line.

An easy way to incorporate crisis exercises into your team meetings is to hold up a newspaper (or an iPad), point to a story, and ask, “what if this happened to us?” 

The point of the question is to stimulate thoughtful discussion while your team explores different “flavors” of the situation. The point is not simply answering the question. In fact, you should end up with a number of unanswered questions.

Here are seven things you can do to have an impactful “what if?” crisis exercise with your team:

Resist easy dismissals. If someone says, “well, that could never happen;” dismissals come in positive forms as well. Responses like “we have a plan” or “we know what to do” dismiss the question just as much as “that can’t happen.”

Let imaginations run wild. If, indeed, it “can’t happen,” at least in the way it’s presented in the newspaper article, then what could happen? How could something like that happen? If your head of IT says the systems can’t be hacked, imagine how else the systems might be compromised, like through an act of sabotage or corporate espionage.

Look outside yourselves. You worked through the “what if” questions and have a pretty good idea of what you’d need to do. The temptation is to declare victory and move on. But have you thought about what others might think of your plan? How would your employees feel about it? Your customers? Anyone else who is important to your organization? 

Going further, ask how you might rebuild trust with your employees, customers, and other important stakeholders.

Go back to values. Are you staying true to our core values? If your core value is, “we put our employees first,” then is that value coming through in your hypothetical response? If your organization values transparency, are you being transparent in your crisis response? Could you be more transparent? Would the potential for litigation put pressure on you to be less transparent?

What or who else do we need? No one should be expected to manage a crisis alone. Who else needs to be “in the room?” Many of those resources may be readily available within your organization if you know how to mobilize them. Some capabilities – say, a crisis management consultant – may be beyond what your organization possesses. How might those capabilities be rapidly acquired? Who would you call? These are not questions you want to be answering in the middle of a crisis.

And then what? This may be the most valuable question of them all. Asking this question, repeatedly, empowers your team to look beyond first-order consequences. We call it “second-level thinking.” If you want your team to be proactive and anticipate potential paths a crisis may take, then you need to develop the team’s second-level thinking. It’s the difference between reacting to a crisis and managing it. 

Sometimes this question needs a different phrasing: “what are we not thinking about?” Both of these questions encourage critical second-level thinking, and that’s where the real value arises from crisis exercises. Second-level thinking is not a tactic – it’s an instinct. The more automatic and instinctive it is, the more successfully your team will be able to adapt, pivot, and anticipate.

Follow-up with action. Any unanswered questions need to be answered. Assign responsibility to team members, schedule a follow-up meeting, and put a plan in place to address any gaps in the crisis plan or the team’s skill sets. Then do it. And then ask, “and then what?”

I encourage you to try this at an upcoming team meeting. Take 15-20 minutes to ask, “what if this happened to us?” Someday it will. Wouldn’t it be great if your team had already thought about it and what could happen next?

We’re here to make planning for the unexpected easier. Starting with Crisis of the Month, a quick-and easy crisis exercise that cuts out the newspaper. Once a month, we’ll send you a situation with three questions that you can ask at your next staff meeting. There. You’ve done a crisis exercise and are stronger for it. Sign up for Crisis of the Month here.

Need help? Kith facilitates crisis preparedness workshops that will help your company attain the clarity, trust and speed you need to respond confidently – no dithering! – to any crisis. We’d be happy to have a conversation about how we can help your company be ready to chart an effective course to reputation protection. Is your business ready to handle a crisis? Take our Crisis-Proof Your Business assessment and gain valuable insights to prepare your business for any crisis. 

Jeff Blaylock

Jeff is an experienced strategic communications and public affairs professional who has advised organizations through challenging media and political environments, public affairs campaigns, reputation management, message development and crises.