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Risk in Context

Up Your Crisis Management Game with Tabletop Exercises

Posted by Chandra Seymour February 01, 2018

Natural hazards, acts of violence, corporate scandals, and more have tested organizational crisis management and emergency response plans in recent years. But risk professionals shouldn’t wait for a business-critical event before formulating their potential response. Here’s how tabletop exercises can prepare your people and your organization for a crisis. 

How Tabletops Work

Corporate training often involves employees reading about various subjects in great detail. But most adult learners benefit from a more practical and interactive learning approach that simulates real events. And in an actual crisis, when employees may not be able to turn to written or digital manuals, understanding how a situation could unfold and their expected actions is especially important. 

Through a tabletop exercise, a facilitator leads a walkthrough of a hypothetical crisis scenario and an organization’s potential response. At every step, the facilitator asks probing questions of the group and encourages participants to challenge each other. The goal is to review best practices, roles and responsibilities, areas for potential improvement, and new ideas that can be incorporated into response plans. 

Ideally, an exercise would start with a brief review of existing procedures and processes before turning to a preselected scenario. Usually, the scenario includes two parts or moves in time: An immediate or initial response followed by response actions over a longer period. This timeframe could range from a few hours to several days or weeks after the initial event. 

What Scenario Should We Exercise?

Before choosing a scenario for the exercise, planners should first agree on objectives: Is the aim to validate how well the organization can communicate in a crisis? Should the focus be on keeping employees safe? Or do you have another goal? 

Your primary goal will determine what scenario to exercise. For example, if the focus is communications, you might choose a corporate scandal or other reputational event. If the goal is to discuss emergency response actions around life safety and your people, an active shooter incident or natural disaster threat might be more appropriate. 

Who Should Be Involved?

Your objectives should similarly influence which employees and departments or functions participate in an exercise. For example, a reputational event or other crisis requiring a long-term response might call for senior leaders to be involved. Meanwhile, environmental, human resources, facility, security, health and safety personnel, and, potentially, law enforcement should be involved if the scenario involves life safety threats. 

Who leads the exercise will be determined by the seniority of the exercise participants. A risk manager or chief security officer might be an ideal facilitator if senior leaders are involved, while health and safety personnel could lead exercises involving rank-and-file employees. Or you might choose an impartial crisis management expert from outside the organization to run the exercise. 

It’s impossible to prepare for every type of crisis. But exercising your crisis management plans and skills could help alleviate a situation and ultimately its impacts on your organization. Through tabletop exercises based on real-world scenarios, you can better prepare and protect your organization, people, and reputation.

Chandra Seymour

Senior Vice President, MRC Reputational Risk and Crisis Management