Crisis simulation is the best preparation for the real thing

It is often said that government should be run more like a business.

It is often said that government should be run more like a business. Yet simulating crisis communications events in order to prepare senior leaders for the real thing is one area where businesses can learn a lot from the government.

Recent events illustrate that most companies are not nearly as prepared as they could be when it comes to anticipating policies and operations that could invite media scrutiny. Imagine if Lowe's had played out various social media reactions to its decision to pull advertising from the TV show All-American Muslim. Would the home-improvement retailer still have removed those ads if it had? Maybe. Would it have been more equipped to handle the uproar? Absolutely.

Like elite athletes who use practice and repetition to build muscle memory, individuals who find themselves called upon to respond to rapidly unfolding events and to collaborate with a team that may be in different parts of the world, can also perfect protocols and form habits that make a real event seem like, well, old news.

Case in point: Zappos recently averted potential fatal damage to its reputation and business with the speed, transparency, and competency of a company that no doubt knew it could be the victim of a data breach. Its public actions made it look like an organization that had prepared for the worst and had a detailed plan that it simply had to execute. More companies could do the same.

I recently led two crisis scenarios for a consumer packaged goods client. Gaps were exposed, but fairly simple steps could be taken to help mitigate them and improve response protocols and plans.

Another major benefit of simulation exercises is that senior leaders representing business operations, legal and HR, and front-line personnel who would be chasing down facts and information become aware of the pressures communicators face. Communicators also learned of the demands operators and other business lines are under while everyone races to keep up with reporters and social media platforms operating at light speed.

Crises test more than emergency protocols. They reveal the true nature of leadership and will demonstrate if a company adheres to its professed values when the heat is on. These simulations can be just as revealing, but without the reputational costs of a real event.

Sean Smith is an SVP for reputation management and crisis communications at Porter Novelli. He was assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security from January 2009 through April 2011.

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