Advice For More Successful Crisis Communications Exercises

In his third blog for OnSolve, Dr. Steve Goldman shares his experience and tips for successful crisis communications exercises.

Author and playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The biggest single problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Unfortunately, the same philosophy can be applied to many crisis communications exercises. An organization has a plan, conducts a crisis communications drill or exercise, and thinks it does well. Then a real event hits and WHAM – things fall apart quickly. Why? The predictable reason is that the exercise did not do what it is supposed to do – realistically train responders on what to expect and what to do.

Let’s start with the basics: What is crisis communications?

Note: I usually separate “notifications” (one-way instructions) from “communications,” but for this blog they are similar.

Crisis communications is the mechanism to receive, process and transfer complete, accurate and timely emergency/crisis information, using all available technology, to:

  • Provide emergency information and instructions
  • Ensure those who MUST know of the crisis events are notified and kept updated
  • Keep key audiences informed quickly and accurately
  • Respond quickly to events, changes, rumors, bad news, fake news, etc.
  • Protect an organization’s intangible assets

This is not easy. Many organizations do well in their technical response, but do poorly in their communications response. If so, what is the overall perception? You know the answer: The whole response effort is draped in failure. Don’t let this be you!

A successful crisis communications exercise offers many benefits!

For your responders:

  • Training, understanding and “AHA!” moments
  • Responders use the tools they will use in a real event
  • Responders see the effects of their actions and decisions
  • Participants can “win” with proper actions and decisions

For your program:

  • Identify weaknesses, gaps and areas for improvement before a crisis
  • Validate your crisis communications plan and program
  • Validates equipment and systems; “Money well spent”
  • Trains responders: improves their competence, inspires their confidence and builds teamwork within your organization
  • If done really well: Excellent recognition, visibility, trust and respect for your program and for you

So what advice would I offer?

1. Understand the following equation: PR ≠ CC

Since I teach at MIT, I am pretty sure I have to use at least one equation in my writings. This equation simply means that public relations is not crisis communications. PR departments and PR firms may try to convince you that crisis communications is simply faster PR. It is not. It is an entirely separate expertise with some common tools but with different skill sets required to be successful.

2. Have a Plan (with Procedures and Appendices)

Determine ahead of time who does what, when, where, how and why. You need pre-approved news/information/web/social media templates ready to be immediately used when a crisis hits. Staffing should be two or three deep per position; you may have a 24 hour crisis on your hands. However, having a plan is not enough – read on.

3. Conduct CC Skills Training

This includes crisis spokesperson training; getting some early information statements developed, approved and out within 15 minutes (yes, you read that right); social media awareness, detection and fast response; using your emergency notification system – set up, targeting, messaging, response, tracking, evaluation; then conduct a CC team-only tabletop drill.

4. Conduct a Crisis Communications Exercise – make it realistic.

  • Develop a realistic exercise scenario and test all facets of your response. Make it as real-time as possible. Put genuine pressure on responders so they understand what a real event will be like – demanding and stressful.
  • Invite responding government agencies to participate with you. You do not want to be meeting government officials for the first time during your real event!
  • Set up a “Control Cell” of people outside the CC Team, contacting the CC Team as simulated:
    • Call-in reporters – all media types
    • Staff, employees, outsiders or journalism students acting as reporters during exercise media briefings. I have done this many times, all successfully driving huge learning experiences.
    • Social media trolls (on pre-set up private social media sites) who slam the organization and response, and inject fake news, as they will in real life
    • Government officials and politicians
    • Customers, citizens, neighbors, industry peers and competitors
  • Be creative and challenging but be realistic!
  • Don’t let responders get away with shortcuts or tricks.
    • “Let’s assume the CEO approved this information immediately” – that is never going to happen in real life. Actually, the CEO should have a delegated statement release to the Crisis Communications Team Leader – is that in your plan or do you have a lengthy approval process?
  • Halfway through the exercise, have the primary CC team do a turnover to the backup/secondary team. Crisis communications will most likely last long after the technical initiating event is resolved. Can the CC team handle long-term operations?
  • Provide for an honest evaluation afterwards; learn and improve.

(Shameless plug alert) Come join us next July at the “Crisis Management & Business Resiliency” Course at MIT. Yes, that MIT. In addition to the valuable knowledge and networking, we conduct a crisis communications exercise. See you there!

A crisis communications exercise will show you (as Socrates once said) you don’t know what you don’t know. Find out, fix it and be prepared BEFORE the big one hits. The best way to verify good crisis communications will take place is a realistic crisis communications exercise.

Are you prepared for a critical event? Read our FREE ebook to learn why you need to engage in drills and exercises to make your crisis communications plan a success.

Dr. Steve Goldman

Dr. Steven B. Goldman is an internationally recognized expert and consultant in Business Resiliency, Crisis Management, Crisis Communications and Crisis Leadership. He has over 35 years’ experience in the various aspects of these disciplines, including program management, plan development, training, exercises, and response strategies. His background is unique in that he has been a professional engineer, corporate spokesperson, business continuity planner, situation responder, consultant, and a Fortune 500 Company’s Global Business Continuity Program Manager. Dr. Goldman has developed, conducted, and evaluated drills and exercises ranging from two-hour table-tops to massive three-day full-scale exercises involving hundreds of responders, multiple organizations, and all levels of government. Dr. Steve is also Director, Crisis Courses, at MIT. His “Crisis Management & Business Resiliency” Course is at  You can contact Dr. Steve at