Crisis and You: How to Make Simulations Effective — and Fun

October 2, 2018


“What to Do During a Zombie Apocalypse: Crisis Management Simulations Can Be Fun” is a featured PD session at the PRSA International Conference in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 7-9. Check the program or app for details.

As you might discern from this headline, I think crisis simulations can be fun. And to make sure people practice this all-important skill, the simulation must be something people believe they can’t miss.

Why are crisis simulations so all-important? That’s kind of like asking why the crisis communications plans are so integral. We all hope that a crisis doesn’t befall our employer, but it is our responsibility as PR professionals to plan for the crisis and the communication that goes along with it. We need to have a plan, just in case.

To make sure that plan is actually viable, we need to create a crisis — and practice. Think elementary school and fire drills. We all hoped that a fire wouldn’t happen in our school, but we practiced those drills every year, just in case. The grown-up equivalent is the emergency alert system, either on the radio or in the form of test sirens set to go off every month. While we all hope that we won’t need to really use the emergency alert system to signal a crisis, we’re glad it works when a crisis ensues.

This is your crisis simulation — your testing of the emergency alert system for your employer. This test should help reveal the things that you’ve planned that work, and the things that you’ve planned that won’t work.

With this knowledge, you can change those plans that don’t work into ones that do work before there is a real crisis.

So let’s review your latest crisis simulation: How many people were miraculously ill that day and didn’t show up for the simulation? How many people complained about all they should be doing “for real” during the crisis while totally ignoring the roles they were assigned to fill during a “for real” simulated crisis?

Unless your company is one where a crisis happens pretty often, I’m guessing your answer to both questions is more people than you are comfortable admitting missed your latest simulation. You may have tried a stern email from the CEO to make these skippers feel like this crisis simulation thing is important, valuable and necessary to the health of the company.

However, wouldn’t it be great if there were a better way to make them really believe they just can’t miss the crisis simulation this year?

Rethink simulations

As we move into a world where the majority of employees will be millennials or Generation Z, we will need to rethink crisis simulations.

These two demographic groups have different values than their predecessors and aren’t afraid to tell employers what they want in the workplace.

What millennials want is to work in a creative workplace. They’d rather work somewhere for less and be able to be creative and valued. Generation Z values fluidity in a workplace and finds value in learning things beyond the regular classroom.

As crisis communicators, we can take these values, put them together and come up with a crisis simulation that prepares our workers and uses a creative environment to drill the skills necessary during a crisis.  

First, we need to determine what the objectives are for our crisis simulations. This sounds like a no-brainer step, but it may be one you haven’t done. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I want workers to learn from this simulation?
  • What does my boss want workers to learn from this simulation?
  • What do regulators want workers to learn from this simulation?
  • What do workers want to learn from this simulation?

Your answer to the first question may be based on your answers to questions two and three, but that’s OK. What really matters is the final question, because there’s your less-than-enthusiastic audience.

If you can determine what workers want to get from a crisis simulation, then you can plan one that both meets your objectives and stimulates workers to be there.

Be creative

Once you’ve gotten your objectives, think about what you can use as a simulated crisis that will really practice the skills you need employees to practice, but in a way that is more creative. Get your millennials working here, and really value their desire to be creative in designing a crisis simulation that will be new and unusual. Give them some guidelines and let them go.

Need to practice a crisis that destroys facilities or parts of facilities? Do we really have to have another natural disaster simulation? Why not have the destruction be from a superhero battle on-site? Perhaps some of those superheroes visit your site after the crisis has been contained to do a meet-and-greet? Think crisis communications meets Comic-Con. Who can resist a photo opportunity with Spider-Man?

Need to practice a crisis that spreads like bird flu? Why not have zombies infiltrate your offices and begin spreading the virus throughout your staff? That will definitely provide people with some interesting ways to contain the virus and respond, depending on if it’s “Night of the Living Dead” zombies or “World War Z” zombies. Afterward, everyone can truly say that that Zombie Task Force bumper sticker is no joke.

These ideas may seem silly or sophomoric, but doing the same old simulations that everyone hates and some people miss is no less silly. So if you can get everyone to participate, test your plan and get usable data about its effectiveness by containing zombies. How silly is that?

5 Things You Need to Know About Effective Crisis Simulations

  1. They need to be planned in advance.
  2. They need to be based on crises that are relevant to your area and industry.
  3. They need to test your plan to show strengths and weaknesses.
  4. They need to be reviewed after the simulation to make changes where needed.
  5. They need to be scheduled consistently to review any changes in the plan or personnel.
Kay L. Colley, Ph.D

Kay L. Colley, Ph.D., is an associate professor of mass communication and department chair at Texas Wesleyan University. She began a campuswide crisis simulation three years ago so that journalism and mass communication students could practice crisis communication in real-time. Reach her at


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