Most people do not find out whether they can cope in a crisis until they are at the centre of the storm. But major companies often use crisis simulation exercises to allow teams to test their comms plans as well as experiencing the unique pressures, information void and divided opinions. PRWeek jumped in at the deep end, by joining Edelman's crisis simulation exercise.
It took place over three hours at the firm's offices. Staff were divided into teams of five and given a briefing document to read the day before the exercise began.
During the exercise, phone calls, emails, faxes and media reports appeared at various times. A series of phone calls also came in from staff, journalists and stakeholders. The only rules were to make sure every action was noted down and to all take turns to answer the dreaded phone.
The firm is one of the UK's most successful seafood firms. The company provides wholesale supplies of fresh fish and seafood products to all the major supermarkets. The most popular is Pirate Prawn Patties. The company runs a club for children and young people to educate them about the undersea environment.
It has 12,432 members.
Business growth strategy
The board has approved a new share offering in the next three months and is keen to expand into Europe. There is pressure on the comms team to raise brand awareness, as well as maintaining a positive profile in the press.
The sales and marketing director has appointed a marketing agency to run promotional activity.
It has launched a voucher scheme for members of its club, who can collect tokens from its seafood products to exchange for water sports products such as inflatable armbands and dinghies. These items are produced in China, but are overprinted in the UK with the company logo and branding.
Diary of a crisis
The exercise runs at about three times the normal pace of a crisis.
11.50am: Online report in medical journal The Lancet announces results of a four-year European study that claims eating seafood causes early miscarriages in women.
11.55: The telephone rings. It's a health reporter from the Daily Mail asking for our comment on the study. Will we be removing our products from the shelves?
11.55: Online press announcement of the study, which came from Edinburgh University.
12pm: The technical director emails to report a radio discussion with an expert who provided a list of 'risky food products' that pregnant women should avoid. These include Pirate Prawn Patties. The expert also said these held risks for anyone on long-term medication.
12.05: We receive an internal email from our call centre. The centre has received more than 300 complaints in a 24-hour period saying our promotional armbands won't inflate properly.
12.10: The phone rings. The distribution manager for our South East region is inundated with calls from retailers. Consumers are returning Pirate Prawn Patties and demanding refunds. What should she tell the supermarkets?
12.20: News flash appears on website. BBC News online reports there has been a swimming incident in Gosforth, where 12 children nearly drowned because their promotional armbands failed to work.
12.25: Call from Evening Chronicle in Newcastle. The journalist has spoken to the families of those affected - do we have a message for them?
12.30: Email from our North East regional director who tells us there has been a police announcement on TV confirming the Gosforth incident. Police blame the armbands and say five children have been taken to hospital. An investigation is under way involving the local HSE and Trading Standards Office.
12.35: Online Sky News report on the incident giving the children's first names. The school's headteacher gives an interview describing her 'horror' that 'five children were nearly killed'.
12.35: A fax arrives from the Chinese suppliers of the armbands, claiming the products were in a good condition when they left the factory. However, the supplier says it has frequently warned that dye used to brand the armbands could damage valves and the waterproof surface of the product.
12.40: An aggressive-sounding journalist from The Guardian phones. Did we test the products for safety before we sent them out to thousands of children?
12.40: The phone rings. It's the irate CEO of the marketing agency. Why hasn't anyone spoken to her about what is happening? Is her firm going to be blamed for the armband failure? If we issue a recall, her company will go under.
12.45: The health and safety manager emails to tell us the Trading Standards office is about to recommend a complete withdrawal of the armbands. He knows the office leaks to the media.
12.50: An article arrives from the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle, which has interviews with the parents of children injured in the accident, telling of their horror.
12.50: Our group legal counsel emails. The families of the injured children have instructed a lawyer to seek compensation and want details of all parties involved. Are we ensuring no comment is made that could be seen as an apology or admission of guilt? Have we instructed the marketing agency and the suppliers to say nothing?
13.00: An online business report on FT.com says the firm's share price has plummeted to half its value at the start of the day.
HOW I FOUND IT
KATE MAGEE, Deputy features editor, PRWeek
No-one could accuse our group of being inactive. We fired off emails to our staff, suppliers and stakeholders. We set up online Q&As and issued a product recall of our promotional armbands the moment we heard about the swimming pool incident. But we still managed to overlook the marketing agency and the youth club organisers.
We took a loose approach to dividing responsibilities at the start. Halfway through, our group divided into two - one to focus on the issue of the health risks of fish, the other to focus on the armband issue. It was only as the situation developed that we realised which one was far more serious and joined back together to deal with it.
It was difficult to take an overall view of the crisis when we were all so focused on what was being thrown at us. A lack of clear leadership also meant everyone became confused.
Someone told a journalist we'd issued a product recall before we did. By the time the final call came in - assigned to me - I was hoping it wasn't a journalist, as I wasn't clear what was going on.
The main lessons our group learned was the importance of communicating internally with your team, having a structure and making sure someone was thinking of the bigger picture.
Q&A with Mike Seymour 'Exercises give a realistic view of what a crisis is like'
Mike Seymour, Edelman's international director, crisis & issues management, has been running these exercises for 22 years. He has handled his share of high-profile crises including working on Coca-Cola's European product crisis recalls and the Paddington rail crash.
- What are the benefits of these sessions?
They give a realistic view of what a crisis is like. They put people under pressure, give them a feel for the speed of events and help them realise they need to plan ahead.
- What key things did you notice during the exercise?
I walked around all the teams during the mid-point and people were really struggling. We're delivering some of these messages instantaneously and five is a small team. The exercise also made people feel vulnerable and that aroused different reactions. Some people got angry, others depressed, some overexcited.
- What are the common mistakes in these scenarios?
One mistake is not being clear enough about how to divide up the effort in the group.
The key thing is to be organised about structural responsibilities and have a timeline of tasks at the start. In a real crisis, you would have regular reviews to ensure everyone knows what they have to do and by when.
- Describe the most eventful sessions you have run
During one exercise, a participant pulled the phone plug out of the wall to buy his team some time. But one of the most heart-stopping moments was when a marketing director decided to get a feel for briefing his team (who weren't in the session) on a product recall.
It was only when I had a conversation with him 20 minutes later that he realised he hadn't told them it was just a test. When we do this exercise in a firm, we have a stand by statement and brief everyone internally.
- What are the key lessons?
- Make sure you keep track of who you are speaking to and what was said. That way if any of them phone back, you can deal with them appropriately.
- Being seen to speak with a human voice is crucial. Big firms often get it wrong because they put up a series of suits. I tell clients if there's been a tragic incident, make sure they have a female spokesperson. They convey compassion more effectively.
- Realise that the phone is a key source of information. The lack of information is often a serious challenge in a crisis. Facts are frequently incomplete, muddled and wrong. Take all opportunities to get more information. For example, when the journalist phones, deal with their requests, but also find out what they know.