Crisis Training: Prepared for anything?

Crisis training is meant to prepare PROs for any situation. But how does it measure up in a real crisis?

As organisations such as Ikea and Rover know only too well, a crisis is an unpredictable and costly business.

Managing these incidents has never been more important, but while a swathe of specialist trainers and PR companies purport to offer lifelike conditions and experiences for developing crisis management skills, the ultimate question is how far these courses really prepare PROs for the demands of the actual thing. It is one thing to role-play, quite another to face the reality of a baying media.

Most trainers agree the key to learning is not the theatrics involved, but presenting a believable and engaging scenario. Jonathan Hawker, managing director of Partner PR, tells of an approach by a ferry company which wanted to test its response should one of its vessels sink at sea. 'We found that there were very rigid international maritime regulations for operational emergencies, so instead, we decided to test on a potential food poisoning outbreak, which was far more probable and revealing.'

Testing responses

Even so, not everyone agrees that more 'realistic' courses are the right option.

'Throwing inexperienced people into a full-scale simulated crisis situation is highly irresponsible, as you're playing with people's psychology,' says Martin Langford, managing director of Kissman Langford.

This is why crisis specialist Regester Larkin follows up a simulated media ambush on an organisation's doorstep with simulated studio and press conference activity.

But others still believe there is a role for more intensive courses.

Crisis communications specialist Escott Hunt has developed a simulation process it believes is different. Its password-secure, web-based electronic news distribution system highlights the immediacy of news and emphasises speed of response. The company believes it is vital that trainees experience the timeline of an incident and that words have consequences.

'In a real crisis situation, PROs aren't just there for the journalists who might heckle; the PR response is also about monitoring the media and seeing how the messages you put out translate into hourly news bulletins and newspaper articles around the world,' says Escott Hunt training manager Scott Hamilton.

The course was recently tested on a military exercise involving 2,000 people in Norfolk, London and The Pentagon. The system allows mocked-up TV, radio and newspaper coverage to be instantly accessed using streamed media on a PC or laptop, providing a realistic global scenario.

The good news for those who attend such courses is that the training often proves to be more demanding than the real thing. As Peter Fox, corporate affairs manager for the North-West region of the Environment Agency says of his recent two-day coaching session: 'The trainers were better informed about my organisation than the average journalist, so they could ask more probing questions.'

Mike Boltwood, radiation protection adviser for Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (part of the MOD), agrees: 'When it came to the real thing, it was a doddle.'

Whether this type of training catches on depends on whether PROs demand it. Many trainees are requesting more generic training (see panels) to keep them cool in a crisis while simulations are done internally. But maybe the new-style courses now on offer will soon challenge this view.

CASE STUDY 1: BRITISH AIRWAYS

The global nature of British Airways' business means comms manager Leo Seaton has experienced everything from 9/11 to wildcat strikes by Heathrow ground staff. But he regularly attends training courses run by the International Air Travel Association, and this year he attended a crisis management course by the Henshall Centre.

And despite the many crises and the established crisis management procedures now in place, Seaton says such courses can really make a difference. 'It has reassured us that we're doing the right things and have robust processes and procedures in place to get us through it,' he says.

No matter how realistic training attempts to be, he says the best courses are those that coach patience. 'I would not characterise crisis incidents at BA as calm, but I would not want them to be. I favour control. There is always a huge buzz across the floor when we go into crisis mode - as the adrenaline kicks in. But through non-spectacular training the team comes together. People click into their designated role and everyone just gets on with it.'

BA's crisis manual is a 200-page document, detailing call-out procedures, specific roles, responsibilities and actions, plus press release templates, contact information for third parties, maps and background information on the fleet and commercial partners. Seaton says: 'Training is less about specific simulations but about knowing we have "been here" many times before and have the team, the experience and procedures to deal with whatever is thrown at us.'

Every 12 to 18 months his team takes part in a company-wide crisis simulation exercises. This enables BA to test its core crisis response, which is to isolate incidents from the airline's day-to day business functions, working from the equivalent of a cabinet war room - the Operations Control Incident Centre.

Seaton says that with minor incidents occurring almost daily, most of his department is used to being in semi-crisis mode on a regular basis.

'In most situations, it is simply a matter of moving things up a few notches,' he says.

CASE STUDY 2: LONDON UNDERGROUND

Since joining London Underground in July 2003, chief press officer Stuart Ross has experienced a number of crisis incidents. These include the power blackout in central London in August 2003, followed two months later by two derailments in one weekend at Hammersmith and Camden Town.

In addition, as part of Transport for London, he has experienced the media frenzy following the bomb attack in Madrid.

As a result, the press office regularly runs departmental crisis training, and Ross has been on many of the CIPR's own Crisis Management courses.

But his view is that external talk 'n' chalk training can only do so much.

'You can always plan for the last war, but no amount of training can prepare you for what you have to go through with the real thing.'

A specific problem for his team is the responsibility for briefing whichever senior director is acting as spokesman for a particular event. As incidents are usually different, requiring a particular response, he is not convinced how far it is possible to learn from past situations or simulated exercises.

What is important, he says, is to understand how to cope. 'It is essential to have plans and protocols in place should the worst happen. CIPR-type training teaches you how to keep a clear head and to concentrate on doing your own job and not try to do somebody else's.

'Crisis training for specific incidents is designed in-house and includes operational staff, not just comms staff.' According to Ross, the broader point of these simulation exercises is to make sure all staff practices and procedures are in place. The press office is just one element working to support operations in a crisis. 'The public has a right to hear from the director responsible for dealing with a situation,' he says.

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