MSC Program is Leading the Way to Train Professionals for the 'Game of Crisis'

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June 07, 2019

It was 2:30 p.m. on a raw, rainy Evanston spring afternoon, but a gaggle of seven communication professionals had not seen the outside world since early morning. The team has been particularly busy the last three hours, hurriedly worked to react to a growing data breach crisis for a midsize airline, Zephyr Air. They scrambled to draft press statements, needled upper management for information, spoke live on camera, debated strategy, and plotted their path to stay ahead of a growing scandal.

The scene was tense, stressful…and entirely fabricated.

Twenty-eight professionals from businesses and organizations across the Chicago area immersed themselves into navigating negative public relations in the Master of Science in Communication’s (MSC) inaugural Crisis Communication Seminar and Simulation on May 17 in the Frances Searle Building on the Evanston campus. The Crisis Seminar is an executive education hybrid program that culminates with a live-action simulation—a full-day exercise that gives its participants the experience of riding through an organizational crisis that is playing out on multiple public and private platforms.

“The MSC program specializes in highly interactive, experiential instruction designed to help students assimilate theoretical and evidence-based material in the kinds of situations they encounter in their professional and personal lives,” says Randy Iden, faculty director the program. “The MSC designed this crisis communication seminar to be available for custom programming or for open enrollment groups such as the one Northwestern hosted in May.”

This seminar and simulation, developed as part of MSC’s Hybrid Leadership Program master’s degree, first introduced the participants online to the vocabulary and theoretical research into effective crisis planning and response. They then received a briefing on teams in crisis from Professor Leslie DeChurch, who researches the effects of highly stressful tasks (such as a potential three-year manned mission to Mars) on the success of team collaboration.

Then it got real.

Participants divided into four teams, each with a group-assigned spokesperson, director of communications, and more. Teams then briefly reviewed the fictional Zephyr Air’s website, mission statement, and marketing materials but were soon greeted with a klaxon signaling a media “drop.” MSC alumna and Chicago media fixture Jeanne Sparrow, playing a news anchor, appeared on a conference room screen and reported on a negative Zephyr story. Using a crisis matrix, the teams assessed its risk level and crafted a response.

While the teams were subjected to TV reports, social media attacks, personal visits from the company’s CEO and other personnel, calls from anguished customers and even ambush interviews shoving cameras in their faces.

“The media were very authentic, including the news conference tough questioners and the TV crew who confronted me as I carried two outrageously hot cups of coffee which seared my hands, while I tried to calmly smile, grit my teeth and answer their questions in a pleasant and measured fashion,” says Bob Rowley, a simulation participant and the assistant vice president of media relations at Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications. “The overall experience was extraordinarily useful. It tested our team and forced us to focus carefully and strategically on solutions to the crisis.”

And this crisis was ongoing and evolving. In a nearby conference room was “ops team,” led by Amy J. Hauenstein, Director of Curriculum and Non-Degree Programs for the MSC and the creator of the simulation, which aimed to throw wrenches into the plans hatched by the communications teams. For each press release crafted or response to a customer made, the ops team (largely MSC staffers, one of whom played a bumbling CEO named Chip O’Toole) counters with a response—or another layer to the crisis.

“The situation room was the beating heart of the exercise and allowed each group to have a live interactive experience,” Iden says. “Our staff evaluated the decisions and interventions and placed them on the timeline for the entire exercise. This structure allowed us to overlay the real time decisions with the professional assessment of the best practices. The participants then received feedback to help them determine how best to respond to crises when they are back in the real world.”

Finally, at 4:30, the weary teams were released from their fictional roles and spent another 90 minutes debriefing the exercise. 

“It was nothing short of amazing,” said Deb Lack of the newly launched Lack Communications. “The complexity and completeness of the experience was incredible… the lessons learned through that deep dive will remain engrained for a lifetime.”

The Master of Science in Communication program in the School of Communication at Northwestern University specializes in highly-interactive, experiential instruction designed to help students assimilate theoretical and evidence-based material in the kinds of situations they encounter in their professional and personal lives. The MSC’s crisis communication seminar is now available for custom programming or for open enrollment groups such as the one Northwestern hosted in May. 

The simulation was developed as part of the curriculum for the Hybrid Leadership Program, a master’s degree designed for senior and mid-level managers interested in polishing the skills that make them better leaders and collaborators in a wide range of professional endeavors. The HLP is one of the programs run by the MSC, which has 35 years of experience as the premier communication program for working professionals.