One of many good reasons for including tabletop exercises in your emergency response training is the ability to streamline your crisis communications efforts. Tabletop exercises are effective, cost-efficient and will help you raise awareness of the importance of clear and accurate information exchange in a high-pressure situation.
Information is easily distorted
Did you ever play the game Chinese Whispers as a child - the one where you were told a story you had to pass on to another participant, who in turn passed it onto a third? We did this in school, where the participants were called into the classroom one after another and assigned the task of passing on the story they were told by another pupil. Predictably, the story changed both in character and content as it was retold. When the last person shared his version to the class, the rest of us were practically in tears. The story was unrecognisable.
Although a well-written crisis communications plan forms the basis for all good crisis management activity, even the most comprehensive plan grows obsolete if not practised on a regular basis.
Tabletop exercises also allows your crisis management team to clarify lines of communication, messaging, actions and organisational issues by responding to a fictional incident. Since time is not a critical factor, the participants get the opportunity to clarify roles and responsibilities and establish best practice throughout the exercise. They also learn how to communicate, both internally to the rest of the organisation and externally. The most important factor is that these types of exercises are frequently executed by being affordable and straightforward to setup.
Lines of communication
How are the lines of communication set up in your organisation? Does everyone know who they should notify in a given situation? What if the crisis response manager is not available, or if key members of the crisis team are out of office?
Tabletop exercises will help your team practise their lines of communication in a realistic manner. Begin the exercise at the point where the business gets alerted about an incident. For example, someone calls in a bomb threat or someone notifies reception of an incident. Even at this early stage, you will disclose how the notification processes and communication methods work for the organisation:
- Who receives the message?
- What is the content of the message?
- Is all relevant information distributed?
- What are the follow-up questions that need to be asked?
- How and when is incoming information distributed to the response team?
The risk of errors in such high-stress situations are severe, and only regular exercises and established routines can reduce the risk of misinformation.
Use real and fictional scenarios
Using a real scenario as a starting point allows the supervisors to drive the exercise forward by presenting updates to the situation. Every individual member of the crisis staff must, for each recorded change/update to the incident, first manage the available information and then evaluate the actions he or she should take. It is important to establish the owner/key decision maker for the crisis. Remember that the size of your team, and the specific individuals involved, will vary depending on the situation.
All scenarios you train should be accounted for in the emergency response plan. During an exercise, these situations will challenge different parts of the emergency preparedness of the organisation.
A member of the crisis team cannot start searching for action cards when faced with a real crisis. To handle a crisis successfully, you must master your assignments, especially during the first critical stage. A tabletop exercise dedicated to crisis communication is well-suited for training this crucial stage. With a realistic scenario, an experienced supervisor and the involvement from the entire emergency response team, these exercises can be very rewarding.
My experience is that it's better to have several small tabletop exercises throughout the year rather than just one massive exercise each year. The crucial details of initial crisis management must be trained regularly to give all participants the confidence and experience to be ready for a real-life crisis.