Ming Wang, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Simulation-based training (SBT) is a useful pedagogical tool used in crisis management training. This paper explores the effects of a crisis simulation activity on students’ crisis management competencies. Pre- and post-test surveys indicated that students significantly improved crisis management competencies after the crisis simulation activity. Moreover, presence was found to be positively associated with post-simulation crisis management competencies, suggesting that presence is critical in designing an effective simulation activity.
Key words: crisis simulation, crisis management, presence
Using Crisis Simulation to Enhance Crisis Management Competencies: The Role of Presence
Using Crisis Simulation to Enhance Crisis Management Competencies: The Role of Presence
Effective crisis management is critical to the success of organizations. From the Volkwagen emissions-cheating scandal (Boston & Sloat, 2015) to the food-borne illness outbreak at Chipotle Mexican Grill (Jargon & Newman, 2016), crises, if not properly managed, can severely damage an organization’s reputation, hurt its bottom line, and stunt its long-term growth. It comes as no surprise that crisis management is a popular and important topic in public relations classes.
Simulation activities provide unique opportunities for students of crisis management to develop theory grounded practice in the real world through problem-based learning (Hsieh, Sun, & Kao, 2006), experiential learning (Kolb, 1984; Rogers, 1996), and transformative learning (Clemson & Samara, 2013). One of the key factors that can potentially enhance the effectiveness of such activities is presence, an individual’s subjective sense of “being there” (Barfield, Zeltzer, & Slater, 1995; Minsky, 1980).
This study compares pre- and post-simulation assessment of students’ crisis management competencies in a senior-level public relations theory and strategy class to demonstrate the effectiveness of a crisis simulation activity in improving key learning outcomes. Furthermore, this project identifies presence as a key psychological outcome of the simulation activity and empirically tests whether presence is positively associated with post-simulation crisis management competencies.
Crisis Management Competencies
Effective crisis management involves a variety of skills, such as strategic planning, problem solving, message production, information management, communication management and issues management (Coombs, 2014).
A well-known certification for public relations practitioners is the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) credential administered by the Universal Accreditation Board (UAB). The APR program delineates a set of competencies—detailed knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA)—in a study guide for its computer-based examination. The competencies in the 2015 guide cover (1) researching, planning, implementing and evaluating programs; (2) ethics and law; (3) communication models and theories; (4) business literacy; (5) management skills and leadership; (6) issues management and crisis communication; (7) media relations; (8) history and practice of public relations; (9) using information technology effectively; and (10) advanced communication skills. Its issues management and crisis communication unit encompasses (1) understanding phases of a crisis, (2) considering multiple perspectives, (3) engaging in issues management, (4) developing risk management capabilities, and (5) providing counsel to management.
To help students in the public relations and theory class develop these competencies, a class session prior to the simulation activity focused on specific theories and topics on crisis management, such as conducting crisis assessment, defining key publics, composing key messages, compiling supporting facts, and understanding situational theory of publics.
This study employs two separate measures of crisis management competencies discussed above as key learning outcomes: APR competencies and course competencies. The APR competencies items are based on the descriptions on the study guide for APR’s computer-based examination; the course competencies items tap more directly into the content covered during the class prior to the simulation activity.
Simulation-Based Training (SBT)
Viewed as a type of problem-based learning (Hsieh et al., 2006), simulation-based training (SBT) is more effective at imparting complex applied competencies, can lead to learning in a short period of time, is simple to learn, is learner-controlled, and is inherently more engaging (Salas, Wildman, & Poccolo, 2009).
SBT is commonly used in public relations and management training, especially crisis management and media relations, to help practitioners apply theoretical concepts to solving practical issues (Bland, 1995; Coombs, 2001, 2014; Dutta-Bergman, Madhavan, & Arns, 2005; Lane, 1995; Shifflet & Brown, 2006). A survey of 122 organizations found the desktop simulation exercise was the second most popular crisis management team-training activity and also the second most common type of media training (Lee, Woeste, & Heath, 2007). Dyer (1995) recommended that “once people are involved in developing, implementing, and evaluating the crisis response, then planning for ongoing simulations with the crisis plan can be a much more viable part of organizational practice” (p. 40).
SBT is also a popular pedagogical tool in classroom teaching. Asal and Blake (2006) claimed that “simulations, particularly human-to-human interactions, offer social science students the opportunity to learn from firsthand experience, and can be an important and useful addition to an educator’s teaching repertoire” (p. 1). SBT provides an experiential learning experience where students learn through “discussion, group work, hands-on participation and applying information outside the classroom” (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2012, p. 2). Crisis management is a great fit for the active learning of analytic skills through a simulation activity (Coombs, 2014).
Despite its popularity in workplace training and classroom teaching, SBT has surprisingly suffered from a lack of rigorous empirical evidence on its effectiveness (Raymond & Sorensen, 2008). Some claim that SBT, as an active learning tactic, is an effective pedagogical tool (Dorn, 1989; Shellman, 2001) motivating students to study the materials harder (Rogers, 1996) and understand abstract concepts better (Smith & Boyer, 1996). However, much of this evidence relies upon instructors’ subjective impressions or select qualitative feedback from students (Fuller, 2016; Olson, 2012; Raymond & Sorensen, 2008; Shellman, 2001). Some other research has reported less optimistic results. For instance, a gaming simulation in an economics class led to surprisingly less thorough understanding of the course content than a conventional introductory course (Wentworth & Lewis, 1975).
SBT in Teaching Crisis Management
In previous studies of teaching crisis management with simulation activities, the findings were largely positive. Students who participated in crisis simulation activities reported positive overall impressions (Anderson, Swenson, & Kinsella, 2014), believed simulation made the class more realistic (Baglione, 2006), effectively applied theoretical concepts (Fuller, 2016), gained a better understanding of the tasks of a communication professional (Aertsen, Jaspaert, & Van Gorp, 2013), and demonstrated improved crisis management skills, as well as confidence, preparation and creativity in managing a crisis (Baglione, 2006).
However, none of these studies employed a rigorous pre/post-test design to examine the extent to which crisis simulation activities improved crisis management competencies. Moreover, none used APR competency measures. Given the promise of SBT in teaching crisis management, the next section describes the motivations for and details of the simulation crisis used in a public relations theory and strategy course that aims to address these limitations in the literature.
Background of the Class
The course that implemented this simulation activity was a senior-level class that targeted upperclassmen and graduate students. This class examined the public relations industry and discussed public relations models and theories early in the semester before devoting two weeks to crisis management strategies. The first week introduced students to key topics in crisis management: issues management, crisis assessment, analysis of key publics, situational theory of publics, and key messages and supporting facts. The second week began with discussions of crisis management strategies and the crisis management plan, after which the students participated in a crisis simulation activity.
Crisis Simulation Activity: Bed Bugs on Campus
The simulation activity followed a three-step process to maximize its effectiveness: instructions, simulation and debriefing (Baglione, 2006).
Effective teamwork is critical to crisis management (Waller, Lei, & Pratten, 2014). Students worked in small groups of five to six students, acting as public relations agencies to work on a variety of tasks throughout the course of the semester. For this activity, they were told to work in their own agencies to advise the client who approached them for counsel on the crisis.
To maximize realism of the scenario and student involvement in the activity, a crisis of bed bugs on campus at a large Midwestern university was chosen. This event did happen to the campus several years ago, but most of the students in the current class were not aware of the occurrence of the event, let alone specific details in the briefs. Hence, prior knowledge should not bias study results.
The crisis escalated through three stages: Bed Bugs Suspected, Bed Bug Rumors, and Bed Bugs Confirmed (see Figure 1 for scenario synopsis and key discussion questions for each stage). Quotes were adapted from news coverage on the actual crisis and key events in the briefs were actual occurrences based on conversations with the university communications director who dealt with this crisis.
Crisis Synopsis (Left Column) and Discussion Points (Right Column)
Stage 1: bed bugs suspected. Students were given an initial brief at Stage 1, asked to read the brief and discuss the questions on the brief to provide counsel to University Communications, the client. At the initial stage, a student reported seeing parasitic insects on her roommate’s bed and waking up with bite marks on her legs the next morning. She reported the incident to University Housing, who brought examiners to study the situation and was told that the presence of bed bugs could not be confirmed until at least a week later.
The challenge for University Communications and University Housing was that investigation results would not be available for another week, which left a long spell of information vacuum. Students were asked to assess the situation to decide if this was a crisis at this stage, who the key publics were, what key messages and supporting facts needed to be prepared and what plans needed to be in place for both short-term and long-term challenges.
Stage 2: bed bug rumors. Students received a Stage 2 brief in about 15 minutes, regardless of whether the teams had finished discussions at Stage 1 or not to simulate the urgency and stress during times of crisis.
This brief stated that University Housing decided to inform the student who reported the incident and her dorm of the investigation plan and not to alert the larger public while the investigation was still ongoing.
However, a local TV news crew heard of the rumor and sneaked into the residence hall where the incident occurred. The reporter interviewed students who claimed that there were bed bugs and that the university was trying to hide the issue. She also interviewed students on the street who said they had not heard anything about bed bugs on campus.
Given the development of the crisis, students were asked to assess the situation to redefine key publics and key messages along with supporting facts at this phase.
Stage 3: bed bugs confirmed. Students received the last brief in about 10 minutes, regardless of whether the teams had finished discussing the questions from the Stage 2 brief or not.
The update stated that after a thorough investigation, it was confirmed that the room where the incident occurred was indeed infested with bed bugs along with several other dorm rooms. A story published in a local newspaper included student and university sources who provided their own accounts of what had transpired. The story reported that one of the Resident Assistants (RAs) was asked to allegedly lie about her own bed bug situation by the university.
Given that the story had been covered by several mass media outlets, students in the class were told that the university decided to invite journalists from local media organizations for a media briefing session. They were instructed to brainstorm 10 potential questions that the journalists might ask and to prepare corresponding key messages and supporting facts to address these questions.
Then the students were asked to plan for a mock press conference where each team would send one student to form a committee of university administrators, communications professionals and housing staff to field questions from the rest of the class, who would role play as invited journalists. Incorporating a simulated news conference has been a popular tactic in teaching crisis management (Baglione, 2006; Foote, 2013; Olson, 2012) as it provides students with an opportunity to learn how to be crisis spokespeople (Coombs, 2014).
At the end of the mock press conference, the students and the instructor discussed appropriate plans at each stage of the crisis and critically analyzed the answers from the panel at the press conference as a debriefing for the whole simulation activity.
Given the largely positive effects of SBT documented in the literature, it was expected that the bed bug crisis simulation would enhance both students’ APR crisis management competencies and course-specific crisis management competencies.
H1a: Students will report higher levels of APR crisis management competencies after the simulation activity than before the activity.
H1b: Students will report higher levels of course crisis management competencies after the simulation activity than before the activity.
Having expected that SBT would improve student learning, this study tackles the next question of how simulation does it. Little research has explored what makes a simulation activity effective. Published work has largely discussed a specific case or scenario used for a particular class, failing to investigate which aspect of the activity is significantly related to positive learning outcomes.
Booth (1990) is one of the few researchers who has delved into which elements enhance learning in SBT. He pointed out two factors: interactiveness (decisions made by participants during the simulation become real situations for other participants) and stress (participants are put under stressful conditions to simulate real-life experiences).
Audience characteristics may also affect how much SBT enhances learning. For instance, in their experiment with a computer-based crisis communication activity, Shifflet and Brown (2006) found learning styles and prior exposure to public relations impacted student performance. This study examines another audience characteristic, presence.
Simulation activities differ from case studies, a popular pedagogical tool to teach crisis management (Friedman, 2013), in that students typically analyze case studies from the perspective of objective observers whereas they are expected to engage in role-playing to be immersed in a simulation activity (Bell, Kanar, & Kozlowski, 2008). This type of immersion in another scenario is presence.
Presence is a concept most commonly studied in virtual environment media (Slater & Wilbur, 1997). However, defined as an individual’s subjective sense of “being there” (Barfield et al., 1995; Minsky, 1980) and the “experience of being in one place or environment, even when one is physically situated in another” (Witmer & Singer, 1998, p. 225), the concept can be applied to other communication modes as well. Indeed, Ijsselsteijn, de Ridder, Freeman and Avons (2000) conceptualized presence more broadly as the sense of being there in a mediated environment. Schloerb discussed the subjective presence as the perception that a person was “physically present in a given environment” (1995, p. 65). Similar concepts in the study of narrative persuasion include transportation (Green & Brock, 2000), narrative engagement (Busselle & Bilandiz, 2009) and flow (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). Witmer and Singer (1998) related presence to involvement and immersion, concepts that are widely studied outside the area of virtual environment.
Presence is a multidimensional construct that has been conceptualized as transportation, realism, immersion, social richness, social actor within a medium, and medium as social actor (Lombard, Bitton, & Weinstein, 2009). In this crisis simulation activity, transportation, realism and involvement are the most relevant dimensions. Previous studies on crisis simulation activities actively discuss measures to enhance realism and involvement, such as incorporating prompts (Baglione, 2006), to transport participants to the role-playing world.
To enhance presence, this study employed several strategies: (1) the crisis briefs repeatedly used second-person voice and emphasized the roles that students played to transport them to the bed bug crisis world; (2) the activity went through three phases, reinforcing the simulated environment that students were in—the longer the students engaged themselves in the simulated story, the more likely they were going to be transported to the story world; (3) to increase realism, this simulated activity was adapted from a real-life crisis with real quotes, development of the event, and crisis management actions; (4) the bed bug crisis was a scenario that students could easily relate to as personal relevance increases the motivation to engage in elaborative processing, resulting in higher levels of involvement (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986); (5) given the nature of crisis management, students were not given enough time to fully discuss the questions at each stage of the simulated activity. An accelerated pace with no break, but urgency at each phase, kept students immersed in the story; (6) students were asked to host and participate in a mock press conference as the conclusion of the crisis. This challenging behavioral task motivated students to more thoroughly research the crisis, resulting in higher levels of involvement.
Despite popular belief that presence increases task performance, there is no solid evidence to support it, claims Welch (1999). Some studies, however, do show that presence increases learning. For instance, Dunnington (2014) interviewed nursing students who participated in scenario-based human patient simulation and found that presence impacted the learning experience and outcomes. Richardson and Swan (2003) found that students reporting higher perceived social presence also perceived they learned more from a course and were more satisfied with the instructor.
Effective simulation activities should induce a high degree of presence among students. This heightened psychological state will improve student learning outcomes.
H2a: Presence will be positively associated with APR crisis management competencies in a crisis simulation activity.
H2b: Presence will be positively associated with course crisis management competencies in a crisis simulation activity.
Data were collected from a senior-level public relations theory and strategy class in a large Midwestern university on March 7, 2016. Students in this class were mostly juniors and seniors in the advertising and public relations major. Thirty-three students were enrolled in the course, 31 completed the pre-test questionnaire, and 27 turned in the survey questionnaire after the simulation activity.
The week prior covered issues management and crisis management theories. The class on March 7 started with a discussion of crisis management strategies and components of a crisis management plan, after which students filled out a pre-test questionnaire that assessed crisis management competencies defined by the APR certification exam study guide and content covered in the class. Then students underwent three phrases of the crisis simulation activity, including the mock press conference, before they answered the same set of crisis management competency questions in a post-test questionnaire along with a battery of questions on presence and two open-ended questions.
APR crisis management competencies. A battery of crisis management competency questions was adapted from the Issue Management and Crisis Communication section of the 2015 Detailed Knowledge, Skills and Abilities Tested on the Computer-Based Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations (Universal Accreditation Board, 2016). Students were asked to rate on a scale from 0 (“do not understand at all”) to 10 (“fully understand the topic”) how much they understood the following topics: (1) the roles and responsibilities of public relations at the pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis phases; (2) the messaging needs of each phase (i.e., pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis phases); (3) considering and accommodating all views on an issue or crisis; (4) factoring multiple views into communication strategy and messaging; and (5) the importance of providing counsel to the management team or client during all stages of a crisis (pre-crisis, crisis and post-crisis). The mean and standard deviation of each pre-simulation and post-simulation item are reported in Table 1. These questions were averaged to create an index of APR crisis management competencies (αpre = .89, Mpre = 5.92, SDpre = 1.41; αpost = .91, Mpost = 7.65, SDpost = .95).
Course crisis management competencies. Another battery of crisis management competency questions was developed to assess the topics discussed in class. These questions are more specific than the APR crisis management competency items. Students were asked to rate on a scale from 0 (“not confident at all”) to 10 (“very confident”) how confident they were in: (1) doing crisis assessment; (2) defining key publics; (3) composing key messages; (4) composing supporting facts; (5) understanding situational theory of publics; and (6) applying situational theory of publics. The mean and standard deviation of each pre-simulation and post-simulation item are reported in Table 1. These questions were averaged to create an index of course crisis management competencies (αpre = .93, Mpre = 5.18, SDpre = 1.69; αpost = .89, Mpost = 7.50, SDpost = 1.01).
Not surprisingly, APR and course crisis management competencies were positively correlated (rpre = .81, p < .001, n = 31; rpost = .81, p < .001, n = 27).
Crisis Management Competences Pre-Post Simulation Comparisons
|APR Crisis Management Competencies
(0 to 10 scale)
|1. the roles and responsibilities of public relations at the pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis phrases
|2. the messaging needs of each phase (i.e., pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis phases)
|3. considering and accommodating all views on an issue or crisis
|4. factoring multiple views into communication strategy and messaging
|5. the importance of providing counsel to the management team or client during all stages of a crisis (pre-crisis, crisis and post-crisis)
|Crisis management course competencies
(0 to 10 scale)
|1. doing crisis assessment
|2. defining key publics
|3. composing key messages
|4. composing supporting facts
|5. understanding situational theory of publics
|6. applying situational theory of publics
Note. npre = 31, npost = 27.
Presence. This construct was measured by asking students to indicate on a scale from 0 (“strongly disagree”) to 10 (“strongly agree”) their agreement with the following statements: (1) I had a sense of being in the crisis scenario; (2) I felt involved in the crisis scenario; (3) The crisis scenario seemed believable to me; (4) I had a strong sense that the characters and events were real; and (5) The scenario seemed real. These questions were only asked in the post-test questionnaire. They were averaged to create an index of presence (α = .94, M = 8.47, SD = 1.19).
Repeated-measures t tests were conducted to examine whether students reported higher post-simulation crisis management competencies than pre-simulation assessment.
To test the hypotheses on the presence effects, two ordinary least squares (OLS) regression models were run on two dependent variables: APR crisis management competencies and course crisis management competencies, controlling for respective pre-test competencies.
Pre- and Post-Simulation Crisis Management Competencies
A repeated-measures t test showed that students reported higher APR crisis management competencies after the crisis simulation activity (M = 7.65, SD = .95) than before the crisis simulation activity (M = 5.78, SD = 1.37, t(26) = -11.40, p < .001, n = 27). H1a was supported.
Similarly, a repeated-measures t test showed that students reported higher course crisis management competencies after the crisis simulation activity (M = 7.50, SD = 1.01) than before the crisis simulation activity (M = 5.12, SD = 1.76, t(26) = -10.72, p < .001, n = 27). H1b was also supported.
The results of the two OLS regression analyses are reported in Table 2.
Presence was indeed positively associated with both APR (b = .35, SE = .09, p < .001) and course (b = .34, SE = .09, p < .001) crisis management competencies. Hence, both H2a and H2b were supported.
Moreover, pre-test APR competencies and presence explained 74% of the variance in post-test APR competencies and pre-test course competencies, and presence accounted for 74% of the post-test course competencies as well.
Effects of Presence on APR and Course Crisis Management Competencies
APR Crisis Management Competencies
Course Crisis Management Competencies
Note. Entries are coefficients from OLS regressions.
* p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.
Through pre- and post-test surveys, this study finds that SBT indeed improved student learning outcomes and that presence was critical in enhancing that effect.
What Students Learned Most
Using two different measures of student learning outcomes, the crisis simulation activity boosted both APR and course crisis management competencies, reaffirming SBT as an effective pedagogical tool in teaching crisis management.
It is worth pointing out that the biggest improvement in learning involved messaging strategy and crisis communication theory. Before the simulation activity, students reported low ratings for messaging and theory competency items: the messaging needs of each crisis phase; understanding situational theory of publics; and applying situational theory of publics. Each was averaged below the scale midpoint of 5. Encouragingly, these items saw the biggest amount of increase in post-simulation ratings, with 2.98 points increase for “the messaging needs of each phase,” 2.63 points increase for understanding situational theory of publics, and 2.71 points increase for applying situational theory of publics (see Table 1).
The post-test questionnaire also included two open-ended questions: “What lessons have you learned from this activity?” and “What are your other thoughts on this activity?” The qualitative feedback from students was overwhelmingly positive and showed some recurring topics that students felt they learned the most.
The importance of crisis planning. One student learned “just how important having a crisis plan is.” Another learned to “always have a pre-plan for any possible crisis that can arise.” One student also noticed that “there is a lot of planning done before a crisis even occurs.” Multiple students also emphasized the importance of being prepared for every type of question.
Key messages. One student learned the “importance of talking points in the interview.” Another pointed out that “key messages + supporting facts are important.” One echoed that “messaging is very important.”
Crisis phases. One student noted “the different phases that follow a crisis and which steps need to be accomplished within each of those phases.” Another saw “how the crisis evolved and learned what to do in each stage.” Similarly, one student learned the “key differences in the different stages of a crisis/possible crisis” and another understood “how to manage crisis in the best possible way in all phases of crisis.” One student hinted at the situational theory of publics by writing that “I learned the different phases that follow a crisis and which steps need to be accomplished within each of those phases.”
Comments revealed that students found the simulation activity fun and very hands on.
This study also finds that feeling “present” in the simulation scenario enhances both APR and course crisis management competencies. In their qualitative feedback, many students commented on the realism and believability of the activity, which contributed to a higher degree of psychological presence. Students used such phrases as “real-life situation,” “really believable,” “real-life practice,” and “being in a crisis scenario.” They believed realism contributed to the effectiveness of the activity.
In designing SBT, instructors should strive to induce a high level of presence. The goal is to transport students to the simulated scenario so that they adopt and play the role of the actors in the case. Research insights from narrative persuasion and storytelling can help the instructors design better prompts.
The simulation activity was designed so that every student had an opportunity to be engaged during all stages of crisis development. The crisis culminated in a press conference where a panel of six students, one from each team, addressed the questions from the rest of the class, who role-played as journalists. While many students mentioned learning from playing the role of journalists (e.g., “I have learned what a real news conference might be like and how to ask important questions.” and “I learned about the kinds of tough questions journalists should be asking.”), one student noted a desire to play the role of the university panelist (e.g., “Great activity, possibly get everyone a chance to be at the press table.”).
The challenge of rotating everyone in the class through the panelist role at the press conference can be daunting, but this could possibly be achieved in a class dedicated to crisis management where the instructor can use different simulation scenarios to grant every student the opportunity to role-play the organizational panelist who addresses the media.
Instructors are encouraged to explore conducting a social-media-based crisis simulation. Public relations agencies, such as Weber Shandwick and Hill+Knowlton Strategies, both have developed innovative social media crisis simulation platforms (Kiefer, 2012; ) that have great potential to be adopted in classrooms (Anderson et al., 2014; Veil, 2010). The challenge is that such a simulation activity requires much more work in both preparation and implementation (Anderson et al., 2014). Nonetheless, with the growing relevance of social media in crisis management, this type of simulation will be of critical value to students and practitioners alike.
Connecting theories and practice is crucial to public relations research and teaching (Cornelissen, 2004). Theories do not transfer perfectly to practice; they need transformation (Wehmeier, 2009). Designing effective pedagogical activities to facilitate this transformation is of great interest to instructors of public relations courses.
Overall, SBT offers an alternative pedagogical approach to traditional assignments in public relations courses. This study shows that a crisis simulation activity can significantly increase students’ crisis management competencies. Creating realistic, engaging simulation activities that enhance presence can help students achieve such competencies more effectively.
Arguably, the contribution of SBT to learning is not confined to crisis management. It can be applied in other areas of public relations, such as media relations, as well. SBT should become part of the pedagogical toolbox that instructors of public relations use to teach both applied and theoretical topics.
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