Field-Testing Crisis PR Plans
By Ned Barnett
One of the (literally) fatal flaws of the Virginia Tech Crisis PR plan was the fact that it wasn't field-tested - they didn't know how it would work, and hadn't tested for flaws that could be fixed before hand. This is a big mistake, though not one widely recognized.
I came up with the idea of field-testing crisis PR plans when I worked at my first hospital, and participated in a crisis "field day" exercise. This hospital - at least once a year - would have nurses and other patient-contact staff actually do things they might be called on to do in a crisis. For instance, we set a hospital bed on fire and had them put it out with the kinds of fire-fighting gear available in or adjacent to hospital rooms. It's one thing to give theory, quite another to get a face-full of smoke while putting out a stubborn sheet/mattress fire. This later paid off handsomely when the hospital was hit by a hurricane and some patient rooms had to be evacuated after windows blew out. The nurses knew what to do - no patients were injured - all because they'd practiced "for real."
From that, I decided that crisis PR plans needed to be field-tested - they cannot just be paper exercises - and when we had a PR crisis (that same hurricane, among others) I was ready to convert the auditorium into a press room, put security into the halls and stairwells to keep roving reporters from roving, etc. My part of the overall plan worked because everyone involved had practiced their roles, they knew what to do, and they did it.
This was almost 30 years ago, and I've applied this lesson many times since - always successfully. If you've not field-tested your crisis plans, you ought to consider it.