Beyond a crisis plan: Preparing through tabletop exercises

Lincoln Land Community College

What will a college’s next emergency be? No one can be sure. Many factors in a crisis situation are unpredictable. Otherwise, we’d take action to mitigate them. What is within control is preparation.

To prepare, the public relations and marketing (PRM) staff at Lincoln Land Community College in Illinois developed a formal crisis communication plan. The plan outlines when and how to use the plan, people’s roles, response guidelines and strategies (including initial; days one, two, three and beyond; and post-emergency), and statement drafts for different situations. It also includes contacts, reference material and templates; and the team has emergency go-bags at the ready.

However, preparation does not stop here.

This article is part of a monthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

LLCC’s PRM staff enhances its readiness and resiliency by holding crisis communication tabletop exercises twice a year in conjunction with the college’s police department, the LLCCPD. These exercises provide a non-threatening, open-discussion environment for college personnel to act in real-world roles for their institution. They talk about how they would respond to various stages of a defined emergency situation based on current plans, policies and procedures. For each exercise, a member of the LLCCPD facilitates and customizes a scenario.

FEMA’s Campus Resilience Program’s exercise starter kits provide a valuable starting point for tabletop exercises. Scenarios have included tornadoes, hazardous materials, cyber breaches, explosive devices, plane crashes and active shooter incidents. More details about each hypothetical situation are shared incrementally as discussion progresses.

Scenario customization, including locations and timeline, is key. As part of that customization, LLCC has found it helpful to backdate an incident. Then staff members can check their calendars to see where exactly they were when the scenario’s emergency begins. Were they in a meeting, off campus or hosting a tour group? These factors weigh into priorities, response time and resources.

What to ask

The LLCCPD facilitator and the director of communications also work together to provide discussion questions specifically for PRM. Questions have included:

  • How and when would the college issue alerts related to these occurrences?
  • Have locations been identified where people should go?
  • What plans, policies or procedures are in place to guide the communication response?
  • How will the institution use web and social media platforms for communications?
  • Who will be working on social media? And from where?

Collectively talking through these possibilities provides a frame of reference for responding in the most immediate stages of a crisis. The scenario provides a plausible situation and asks participants to consider their specific roles in the situation – whether it be serving on the critical incident team, developing messaging, posting on the web or social media, monitoring various forms of media, or documenting.

Crisis rehearsal, sometimes referred to as the “what if” game, helps individuals think through various possibilities or alternatives. For instance, if a scenario’s severe weather event damaged a part of campus, how would that affect the availability of a crisis communication team’s meeting location and resources?

Re-evaluate and adjust

The exercise is not designed to test those involved but to help involved parties identify improvement opportunities for the crisis communication plan, procedures and resources. As often as LLCC has conducted these exercises, it finds a way to improve each time. Aspects to re-evaluate include lines of communication, both internally and with the community and media. This applies to disseminating and receiving communication. For instance, searches of geotagged social media messages can provide incident insights from others on the scene.

Also, accessibility to key information, plans and files can be made more robust by ensuring they are available in multiple ways: printed, on a local server or the cloud, downloaded to a thumb drive, or via laptop or mobile phone.

College personnel may not know what the next crisis will be, but they can take steps to continually improve their preparation.

About the Author

Kyla Kruse
Kyla Kruse is director of communications for Lincoln Land Community College in Illinois. She is also a graduate of NCMPR’s Leadership Institute and its 2022 District 3 Communicator of the Year.