Why faking a PR crisis is the best way to prepare for a real one


No matter how many policies and plans you have in place, you can never know how your people will respond in a PR crisis. But there are people out there who can help you be prepared.

“Every member of your organisation works in public relations, whether they’re an engineer or an accountant.”

That’s the opinion of veteran PR practitioner Gerry McCusker, who runs an immersive crisis training program: The Drill’ that plunges organisations into PR crises using simulation. Seeing how an organisation copes, McCusker can draw lessons and offer advice.

Years ago, the strategies and engagement methodologies for clients were paper-based, says McCusker. However, with the advent of social media, he found that when the proverbial s**t hit the fan, the plans they had in place were simply not adequate.

There’s never been a time where public image management is more important for companies than now, he says. Studies show public trust in organisations is low and sinking, and social media – for all its upsides – makes companies more vulnerable.

“In the old days, a small to medium-size company could fly under the radar. These days a single comment on social media by an employee can turn into a global crisis.” 

In the trenches: How do you create an HR “escape room”?

“Typically, an organisation will come to me and say: ‘Listen, I’ve got a situation coming down the pike – and we’re not sure if our staff will be able to handle it’,” says McCusker. “We want to check how effectively we would respond.”

McCusker and his team then get down to business, writing a script that imagines a specific PR disaster.

The team logs into the platform – and are faced with a simulated real-world crisis, replete with news reports and articles, videos, and live social media reactions, as well as agencies and groups reacting in opposition to the organisation.

Teams are whipped into action, making phone calls, issuing media statements and making other decisions about how to manage the situation.

Sobering lessons

Once the simulation is complete, McCusker and his experts critique the team’s performance, calling out where they went wrong and developing approved “first responder” messaging that can be deployed if and when the crisis eventuates.

So, how prepared are we for modern media crises?

“Australian companies are as good as any in terms of their individual discipline and skill sets,” McCusker says. “I believe Australian HR practitioners are among the best in the world.”

“But what we do observe time and time again is that Australian organisations are built around disciplinary silos. And that’s not helpful in terms of formulating a consistent and cohesive approach to crisis communications.”

He believes the specific skills do exist, but too often HR and other departments such as PR or government relations don’t communicate or collaborate, a problem which  become critical in a crisis situation. “Sometimes it’s this fragmented approach that undoes them,” says McCusker.

Another issue he’s noticing more? Organisations still respond mostly with written statements, whereas social media platforms deal in images and video.

Disciplinary silos and other disasters

At one ASX-listed Australian company, McCusker recalls a situation where a young, digitally-savvy employee responding to a crisis situation created by The Drill, got caught up in the drama and tried to post a three-paragraph media statement to Twitter (it would have been strung awkwardly over multiple posts due to a tweet’s 140 character limit).

“It wasn’t as though this person didn’t understand social media,” says McCusker, “but in the heat of the battle… you would be amazed how the frontline drama of a crisis affects decision making.”

How can organisations prepare for a crisis?

Caught in relentless 24-hour news cycles, where information can be disseminated widely with the click of a button, we often see organisations responding with knee-jerk reactions in an attempt to respond immediately.

What The Drill seeks to do, McCusker says, is “give people that time for reflection, where they can say: ‘is that the right decision at this juncture in the crisis’?”

“We want to get them into that preparation mode, so that when the crisis occur, they know what the process is.”

McCusker says all organisations can take lessons from his approach.

Companies need to build a mindset of listening; during induction, new recruits need to recognise that they are part of the PR department of their company – and their social media behaviour at work needs to reflect this. They also need to develop robust monitoring systems that ask: “how well do we listen to what’s being said about us online and on social media?”

Train your team your way with AHRI’s corporate in-house training and toolkits. Book by 30 June and save $200*as part of the EOFY offer. *Conditions apply.

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More on HRM

Why faking a PR crisis is the best way to prepare for a real one


No matter how many policies and plans you have in place, you can never know how your people will respond in a PR crisis. But there are people out there who can help you be prepared.

“Every member of your organisation works in public relations, whether they’re an engineer or an accountant.”

That’s the opinion of veteran PR practitioner Gerry McCusker, who runs an immersive crisis training program: The Drill’ that plunges organisations into PR crises using simulation. Seeing how an organisation copes, McCusker can draw lessons and offer advice.

Years ago, the strategies and engagement methodologies for clients were paper-based, says McCusker. However, with the advent of social media, he found that when the proverbial s**t hit the fan, the plans they had in place were simply not adequate.

There’s never been a time where public image management is more important for companies than now, he says. Studies show public trust in organisations is low and sinking, and social media – for all its upsides – makes companies more vulnerable.

“In the old days, a small to medium-size company could fly under the radar. These days a single comment on social media by an employee can turn into a global crisis.” 

In the trenches: How do you create an HR “escape room”?

“Typically, an organisation will come to me and say: ‘Listen, I’ve got a situation coming down the pike – and we’re not sure if our staff will be able to handle it’,” says McCusker. “We want to check how effectively we would respond.”

McCusker and his team then get down to business, writing a script that imagines a specific PR disaster.

The team logs into the platform – and are faced with a simulated real-world crisis, replete with news reports and articles, videos, and live social media reactions, as well as agencies and groups reacting in opposition to the organisation.

Teams are whipped into action, making phone calls, issuing media statements and making other decisions about how to manage the situation.

Sobering lessons

Once the simulation is complete, McCusker and his experts critique the team’s performance, calling out where they went wrong and developing approved “first responder” messaging that can be deployed if and when the crisis eventuates.

So, how prepared are we for modern media crises?

“Australian companies are as good as any in terms of their individual discipline and skill sets,” McCusker says. “I believe Australian HR practitioners are among the best in the world.”

“But what we do observe time and time again is that Australian organisations are built around disciplinary silos. And that’s not helpful in terms of formulating a consistent and cohesive approach to crisis communications.”

He believes the specific skills do exist, but too often HR and other departments such as PR or government relations don’t communicate or collaborate, a problem which  become critical in a crisis situation. “Sometimes it’s this fragmented approach that undoes them,” says McCusker.

Another issue he’s noticing more? Organisations still respond mostly with written statements, whereas social media platforms deal in images and video.

Disciplinary silos and other disasters

At one ASX-listed Australian company, McCusker recalls a situation where a young, digitally-savvy employee responding to a crisis situation created by The Drill, got caught up in the drama and tried to post a three-paragraph media statement to Twitter (it would have been strung awkwardly over multiple posts due to a tweet’s 140 character limit).

“It wasn’t as though this person didn’t understand social media,” says McCusker, “but in the heat of the battle… you would be amazed how the frontline drama of a crisis affects decision making.”

How can organisations prepare for a crisis?

Caught in relentless 24-hour news cycles, where information can be disseminated widely with the click of a button, we often see organisations responding with knee-jerk reactions in an attempt to respond immediately.

What The Drill seeks to do, McCusker says, is “give people that time for reflection, where they can say: ‘is that the right decision at this juncture in the crisis’?”

“We want to get them into that preparation mode, so that when the crisis occur, they know what the process is.”

McCusker says all organisations can take lessons from his approach.

Companies need to build a mindset of listening; during induction, new recruits need to recognise that they are part of the PR department of their company – and their social media behaviour at work needs to reflect this. They also need to develop robust monitoring systems that ask: “how well do we listen to what’s being said about us online and on social media?”

Train your team your way with AHRI’s corporate in-house training and toolkits. Book by 30 June and save $200*as part of the EOFY offer. *Conditions apply.

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More on HRM