A WordPress-based Crisis Simulation Platform and how it can be used in a Crisis Communication course

Low-cost (but labour intensive) approach to simulating a crisis for an in-class exercise based on my experience with Crisis Communication and Management students at City University of Hong Kong

Posted by Dani Madrid-Morales on April 15, 2017

I am under the impression that, for students or practitioners who have never faced a corporate crisis, understanding the many factors that come to the fore during such an event is a rather difficult task. It is, in certain ways, the same that happens with journalism students who have never experienced newsroom dynamics - it is difficult to make sense of all the caveats, cautionary tales and precautions that we teach them at university. All of this has come to my mind as I was teaching a course on Crisis Communication and Management at City University of Hong Kong this past semester. Through tests and weekly exercises, I could see that students struggle to grasp why some of the topics we discuss during the semester (group dynamics, crisis prevention and preparation, crisis management skills, the need for a crisis communication plan...) are relevant to communicating succesfully during a crisis. The adrenaline peaks, the stressful decision making, the time pressure... all of these are difficult to convey in class if they are not experienced first-hand. That is why I feel that going through a "as-realistic-as-possible" crisis simulation is the best way to consolidate all the knowledge that I am expecting them to acqurie this semester. Crisis simulation, be it tabletop exercises or full-scale simulations, are a lucrative industry. There are dozens of companies that provide sophisticated simulations, but they are definitely not within any institutions' teaching budget.

Net migration by prefecture in Japan (2014)
Data from the Japan Statistical Yearbook 2015


Crisis simulations are part of most Crisis Communication courses. See, for example, this course at XXXXXXXXXX or these other here. Simulations, however, tend to be rather low on technology. In its most commons form, a written scenario is presented and students are expected to respond to it. A creative approach is that of XXXXXXX, who had students play different roles and first respondents cooperated for a full-blown simulation exercise. Another approach is that of Veil, who gets journalism students to walk into a public relations classroom for an unexpected press conference on a crisis event. Back in 2014, Communication Teacher published an interesting Unit Teaching Idea developed by three professors at St. Thomas University and University of Minnesota. They used a series of Wordpress blogs to develop a simple social media crisis simulator. They tried to mimmick a fast-paced social media platform, presenting students with over 174 messages and 14 news stories. Their project had several interesting points. First, it allowed for a lot of automation, as messages could be pre-loaded and scheduled for delivery at specific times. Second, it updated the "traditional" scenario-based simulations by incorporating social media, which is fast becoming a core element in crisis communication and management. And, third, it offered a free, easy to set up solution to an otherwise really expensive experience for students.

The simulator that Anderson, Swenson and Kinsella developed missed, to my understanding, three equally important aspects of crisis simulation. It did not contemplate internal communications - messages and information exchanges within an organisation; it did not reflect the numerous external information requests that hit crisis management teams during a crisis; and, while it put students under a certain degree of stress because of information overload, it did not feature the noise that characterises social media, with dozens or hundreds of messages unrelated to a crisis, but nonetheless clotting timelines and profiles.

Disposable Income per Household (2014)
Data from the Chinese Statistical Yearbook