Tag Archives: crisis management

Crisis Response Plan Group Project

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted April 12, 2021. Revisions submitted July 22, 2021. Accepted August 17, 2021. Published March 2022.


Nia Johnson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Communication and Media
Howard College of Arts and Sciences
Samford University
Birmingham, AL
Email: vjohnson@samford.edu


This project allows students to take an important chapter from the course text and apply it to a real-world situation: they create and respond to a hypothetical crisis, based on the information discussed in class and in the text. In doing so, they utilize information literacy, critical thinking, and other analytical skills. Learning objectives, steps and procedures, and assessment information are discussed.

Keywords: bloom’s taxonomy, group project, crisis communication, crisis response, crisis management

Introduction and Rationale

Textbooks and case studies can only take students so far in mass communication curricula; the best learning involves experience and application. This may be especially the case for public relations education. While traditional textbook knowledge is important, particularly for beginning PR students, helping those students see the information played out in reality is a great way to ensure actual learning has taken place, rather than simple exposure or memorization. Kolb’s (1984) work on Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) posits that learning is a process where knowledge is acquired by experiences. According to this theory, knowledge obtained from successful experiential learning is cyclical, “where the learner ‘touches all the bases’—experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting—in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned” (Kolb & Kolb, 2005, p. 194). Nilson (2016) also provides researched-based findings to help understand how students learn best, and suggests that true learning can be achieved by “thinking about the meaning of the new knowledge and connecting it to what [students] already know; …interaction with others; …actively engag[ing] in an activity; …receiv[ing] the new material multiple times but in different ways; …[and] making and correcting mistakes [rather than] being correct in the first place” (Nilson 2016, pp. 4-5). 

One subject area that fits naturally with experiential learning methods is crisis management, which is an important part of the overall public relations curriculum. Well-known crisis management researcher and theorist Timothy Coombs (2001) stated that:

“crisis management moves the public relations role to the managerial function and requires the development of many skills and knowledge points… the need for crisis management in practice increases each year as the technology and stakeholders continue to create new crises and pressure how organizations should respond to crises.” (p.89) 

The internationally recognized accreditation program for public relations practitioners, Accreditation in Public Relations (APR), stresses crisis and issues management as 15% of the knowledge, skills, and abilities tested as part of the examination process (Universal Accreditation Board, 2021). Further, after in-depth interviews with 29 advertising and public relations agency leaders, Neill and Schauster (2015) reported that the necessity of crisis and issues management skills for undergraduates was emphasized 70 different times by 25 of the participants. 

The activity described here was designed to foster the learning of crisis management and communication by utilizing an experiential learning method that helps students engage in their own learning, interact with others, and actively, critically think about the material. This project allows students to take an important chapter from the course text and apply it to a real-world situation: they create and respond to a hypothetical crisis, based on the information discussed in class and in the text. In doing so, they utilize information literacy, critical thinking, and other analytical skills. 

This project is designed as the second of two main assignments for an introductory public relations class. The first assignment involves cold-calling and interviewing a public relations practitioner who has been in the industry a minimum of five years, and writing and presenting a report about the information learned in that interview. That assignment helps students to understand clearly what public relations is and that a practitioner needs to be knowledgeable of and skillful in an array of areas. Typically, the students in the class are sophomores or juniors who will be starting their PR practicum sequence in the next academic year. This class is their first introduction to the profession, but this assignment takes place in the second half of the semester after learning and being initially assessed on the material needed to complete the assignment. 

Learning Objectives

This activity enables students to demonstrate knowledge and application of every step in the crisis management lifecycle, as discussed in class and in the assigned text: chapter 10 of Wilcox et al.’s (2015) Public Relations: Strategies & Tactics. Wilcox et al.’s (2015) approach to crisis management involves a lifecycle, where a potential crisis is first identified in the proactive stage, developing crises are planned for in the strategic phase, full-blown crises are responded to in the reactive stage, and reputation damage is assessed and addressed in the recovery stage. The reactive and recovery stages also include applying Benoit’s (1995) image restoration strategies.

Students are able to master this new-to-them material through an assignment that caters to a variety of learning styles and applies multiple categories of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, et al., 1956). Therefore, this activity is designed to achieve six learning objectives (LO):

  1. Explain the role public relations plays in responding to a crisis.
  2. Explain the four phases of the conflict management life cycle.
  3. Identify and research issues facing an organization that require attention or that could lead to a crisis situation.
  4. Identify important steps to deal with a crisis as it occurs.
  5. Design a crisis communication response plan.
  6. Present your plan and defend your decisions.

The activity: Steps and Procedures

The students are first divided into groups of roughly equal numbers. The instructor should be the one to assign students to groups, making sure each group contains students of mixed-ability and is as diverse as possible. Each group is instructed to choose a company or organization that most group members are already perfunctorily familiar with, and pretend that they are the public relations department for that organization. As the PR department for their chosen company, each group is tasked with crisis response: they are to anticipate any issues that might turn into crises for their organization and be prepared to respond to crises that occur. Together, each group is to:

  1. Choose an organization to “work” for and research that chosen company.
  2. Analyze the company’s current situation, based on the research collected. This involves writing a basic situation analysis, including an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT).
  3. Scan the environment of the company and industry to identify potential issues that could develop into crises for the organization. 
  4. Choose one of the issues identified, and envision how that issue could develop into a crisis that could plausibly impact the organization. This step involves designing and describing a particular crisis in detail.
  5. Develop a specific crisis communication plan to respond to the designed crisis.
  6. Present the research, designed crisis, and crisis response plan to the class.

With this activity, students are able to “produce new or original work,” the pinnacle of Bloom’s taxonomy, but it also requires them to work their way through each of the proceeding categories (Bloom, et al., 1956). In addition, the collaborative effort of the group work component contributes to the educational process. “The research on the effects of group learning has focused on several variables—achievement/productivity (learning), positive attitudes and ethics, the quality of interpersonal relationships, and psychological health—and group work enhances all of them for students at all educational levels and of all backgrounds” (Nilson, 2016, p. 180).


Students are instructed that this project will result in a 5-10-page paper that should include the information described below, which also serves as the grading rubric for the paper. Each section of the paper corresponds to one of the stages in the crisis management lifecycle as presented in the assigned text (Wilcox et al., 2015). In addition, each group will also present their research, designed crisis and crisis response plan. The presentations should be 10 minutes, involve every member of the group, and include a visual aid. An additional 30-point value is added to the final paper grade for the presentation. 

  1. Company information and background (10%)

At a minimum, this section should answer: What is the company; what do they do; what services or products do they provide; how many employees and locations do they have? Have they ever faced any major crises? If so, what was their response or the result? This section should also include a SWOT analysis and any other background information deemed relevant.

  1. Environmental scan (Proactive Phase; 10%):

Identify emerging trends, concerns, or issues—both within the organization, within the larger industry, or within society—likely to affect the organization in the next few years. Predict problems and anticipate threats to the company. This involves the reading, listening, and watching of current affairs with an eye to the organization’s interests. Identify and describe at least five issues with the most potential to develop into crises for the organization. Why were those issues selected? What makes them the most likely to cause a crisis?

  1. Crisis (15%):

Choose one of the issues identified in the environmental scan to develop into a full-blown crisis. Consider all possible factors about that crisis. Every detail about it is up to the group to design: What is it? Where did it start? Who does it involve? What level of blame could be accurately placed upon the company? How long does the crisis last? Does the media make the crisis public before the company is able to? etc.

  1. Crisis Response Plan (Strategic and Reactive Phases; 25%):

Design the crisis management and communication plan for the crisis described in the previous section. At a minimum, this section should answer: What are the main messages? Who are the spokespeople and what employees will be made available for comment? What/where is the media headquarters? What main crisis response strategy and image restoration strategy should be employed (denial, excuse, justification, etc.)? Explain the reasoning behind every decision (why were those choices made regarding messages, strategy, spokespeople, etc.).

  1. Conclusion (Recovery Phase; 10%):

What is the final result? What is the anticipated result if the company followed the crisis response plan exactly as designed? What next steps should be taken once the crisis is over?

Evidence of Student Learning

Working with a group to identify issues, create a crisis and respond to that crisis provides a cooperative learning experience, similar to the “think, share, pair” method that Nilson (2016) has found to be a particularly effective learning style. It also helps ensure that students have not simply learned the material in a way that allows them to just answer a question, but to reason with the material and fully apply it to real life scenarios. All of this is enabling the students to move through Bloom’s Taxonomy in a demonstrable way.

In practice, I’ve found that students tend to split up the major sections of this paper and work independently on those sections. Most of the collaboration happens in the beginning, while choosing the company and the design of and response to the crisis, and at the end, in planning the presentation. Allowing some class time for work on this project allows me to monitor each individual’s contribution to the project and the overall group dynamic, answer any major questions groups may encounter, and ensure each group completes the assignment correctly.

Linked below are examples of papers that were submitted during the spring 2021 semester, based on the assignment instructions. Please note that these examples have been linked in their originally-submitted form, without any comments or grading information, and are shared with student permission.

Student Example 1: Chick-fil-A: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gM0nPvhDxTx8h4NQF9BFvFewtzuPLM4V/view?usp=sharing

Student Example 2: American Eagle Outfitters: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1fs5NKrwVQfJ7QYt_jtkAMf84fssSq8E7/view?usp=sharing

During the spring 2021 semester, I administered a volunteer survey to gauge reactions to this project. One-third of the students in this class participated in the research and answered questions about their experience with this project using a Likert-type scale. The questions and their responses are presented in table 1. While this represents an extremely small sample, it does provide some indication of students’ perspectives of this project. Overall, during this semester, the students who responded enjoyed the project, did not find it too easy or overly difficult, self-reported gaining a better understanding of the material, and overwhelmingly understood the instructions and assignment expectations. Unsurprisingly, the group work aspect of the assignment drew mixed reviews.

An additional, open-ended question regarding the group dynamic was also included, which allowed students the opportunity to relay any serious concerns about their groups or particular individuals. I also regularly encourage students to inform me if there is major group discord or work disparity, so those issues can be assuaged before the project is due.


Crisis management abilities are necessary for success in public relations practice, and experiential learning techniques, such as the project described above, can help students thoroughly learn this important topic. By being introduced to this information early in their academic careers in a way that helps foster real learning through engagement and critical thinking, students can become proficient in this subject, leading to greater success in senior-level classrooms and, eventually, in the workforce.


Benoit, W. L. (1995). Apologies, excuses, and accounts: A theory of image restoration strategies. State University of New York Press.

Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. David McKay Company.

Coombs, W. T. (2001). Teaching the crisis management/communication course. Public Relations Review, 27(1), 89-101. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0363-8111(01)00072-8

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education , 4(2), 193-212. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40214287 

Neill, M. S., & Schauster, E. (2015). Gaps in advertising and public relations education: 

Perspectives of agency leaders, Journal of Advertising Education, 19(2), 5-17. https://doi.org/10.1177/109804821501900203

Nilson, L. (2016) Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (4th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Universal Accreditation Board (2021). Study guide for the examination for accreditation in public relations. Retrieved July 22, 2021 from, https://accreditation.prsa.org/MyAPR/Content/Apply/APR/APR.aspx

Wilcox, D. L, G. T. Cameron, & B. H. Reber. (2015). Public relations strategies & tactics (11th ed.). Pearson.

© Copyright 2022 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Johnson, N. & (2022). Crisis Response Plan Group Project. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(1), 144-153. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2881



Cheryl Ann Lambert, Kent State University


Author: Jim Lindheim

Wheatmark, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62787-642-1 (paperback); ISBN: 978-1-62787-643-8 (e-book)

LCCN: 2018954949    


Content and Scope

The novel Spin follows a crisis through the eyes of a fictional veteran crisis management expert named Jonathan Keaton as he is brought into BeeLine, an Apple-like technology company, when its CEO Bradford Sisley becomes embroiled in a sexual harassment complaint. Readers need only enjoy a compelling story and lively narrative to appreciate the book’s content. They should also appreciate punchy dialogue. The book is written in first-person, and the conversational style makes readers feel like confidants with Keaton throughout the duration of the crisis. 

The first-person narrator spends quite a bit of time on his personal life, allowing the reader to identify with him. Indeed, as Spin opens, Keaton reflects on his decision to work for a client whom he knows to be problematic. We learn later that Keaton’s primary motivation is financial, and that he is typically paid handsomely for his work. If money is an indication, Keaton has a well-earned reputation as a crisis management expert. 

It is evident early on that the author is a former senior public relations counselor. He weaves real-life individuals who were outed during the #MeToo movement (Bennett, 2017)—Bill Cosby (Bowley, 2018), Matt Lauer (Nark, 2017), and Harvey Weinstein (Cooney, 2017)—situating the fictional universe of Spin within the present socio-political environment. Moreover, mentions of the corporate crises of BP Amoco (Shogren, 2011) and Enron (Reber & Gower, 2006) suggest a shared history. 

Organization of Book

Formatting each chapter to correspond with days of the week affords an easy-to-navigate narrative. The eight chapters of the book are laid out chronologically according to the roughly 10-day duration of the crisis. The narrative centers on three main characters: crisis management expert Jonathan Keaton, BeeLine CEO Bradford Sisley, and BeeLine vice president of public relations, Wendy Smith-Kenyon.  

The book opens on a Thursday as Keaton arrives to meet Smith-Kenyon. As the chapter continues into BeeLine headquarters, the CEO explains to them that the woman who has accused him of sexual harassment has hired a media-savvy attorney—one with more than a passing resemblance to Gloria Allred (Tolentino, 2017) in passion and press appeal. Readers quickly learn how a hostile client can derail a plan, choosing a course of action that is not only unhelpful but also overtly harmful (e.g., Bruning & Ledingham, 2002). The CEO insists that (1) he is innocent, (2) he would never settle any lawsuit, and (3) he intends to be the voice of men who are falsely accused. 

With their crisis management strategy in full swing, Keaton and Smith-Kenyon sync media lists, while he crafts a media statement and she begins planning a press conference. Readers get a front-seat view of carefully planned media interactions, “overhearing” one of the calls Keaton has with a long-time media contact about the pending story. As the story is picked up by news media, readers also witness real-time media monitoring as they analyze the content and tone of coverage to provide strategic counsel to the CEO (e.g., Veil, Buehner, & Palenchar, 2011; Wigley & Zhang, 2011). 

As is typical of crises in the #MeToo era, this crisis gets worse before it gets better. On Tuesday, a disgruntled former employee impugns the CEO’s character on a morning talk show while late-night talk-show hosts use sharp-edged comedy to ridicule him about the harassment claim. Without revealing too much of the plot, suffice it to say that the CEO tries to manage his own media appearances with disastrous consequences. As expected, the story continues to gain traction, hitting national airwaves. 

Wednesday is split into two chapters, with chapter four taking place in the morning. What begins as a strategy session with Keaton, Smith-Kenyon, and CEO Sisley, quickly devolves as the CEO continues to ignore their advice. Soon thereafter, the company is publicly outed by a BeeLine insider as a “poisonously hostile work environment” whose leadership is deemed “sexist, racist, homophobic, ageist, and dictatorial” (p. 126). Given that BeeLine is a public company, when the story hits the business news, its stock price takes a hit. We learn here just how interconnected public relations and investor relations are to a company’s industry status.

A member of the BeeLine internal communications team emerges on Wednesday afternoon. She holds particular prominence in the company because of her status as the daughter of the company co-founder, and she quickly asserts her power. From her, readers learn that employee morale has also taken a hit, adding internal communications to Keaton’s concerns. Here, the book casts a clear-eyed view of the inherent challenges of internal and external public relations teams working together, sometimes at cross-purposes (e.g., Cardwell, Williams, & Pyle, 2017).  

The Thursday of the crisis is when the twist of the story occurs, articulating for the reader the true origins of the crisis. The “Final Days” cannot be shared without revealing a spoiler, but it is worth noting that the reader will come to understand why Keaton has been largely unable to control the media narrative surrounding the harassment complaint. Those seeking a happy ending can be assured that a perfectly worded statement about upcoming company changes could very well find its way to the media at precisely the right time.

Ideally, Spin would include information about the narrator’s educational background. Readers are left to assume whether his extensive experience includes a particular degree, professional practice, or a mixture of both. Too, the book only conveys the narrator’s expertise in the past tense. The reader learns about Keaton serving as a consultant for several other clients and companies, additionally, characters repeatedly reference his reputation as an industry expert. 

Another area that seems out of place is the repeated references to the lead character’s physical attributes that sometimes distract from the story. Negative self-talk focuses extensive attention on his weight and propensity to overeat. However, the fact that his sardonic humor is reflected in characterizations of others suggests this is merely a personality quirk. More notable is the fact that his limited knowledge of digital media seems incompatible with his status as a crisis management expert.

Contribution to Public Relations Education

Although Spin is written for entertainment purposes, the novel does contribute to public relations education. As an educator whose research interests include media representations of public relations, I have facilitated robust classroom discussions about the differences between how Olivia Pope handles a crisis versus her real-world counterparts. Film-based public relations characters hold similar value as a teaching tool (Lambert, 2011). It would be difficult to overstate how much depictions of client relations and corporate communications in this book align with real-world issues public relations professionals encounter. Educators who are seeking a creative approach to teaching corporate or crisis communication could supplement coursework with this book. Also, discussing the morally ambiguous actions of some of the public relations characters in Spin could help students think critically about questions of ethics versus effectiveness in public relations. Finally, the public relations specialties showcased in Spin remind readers about the many sectors available to industry professionals. Students can only benefit from knowing about the variety of career opportunities in the field.


Bennett, J. (2017, December 7). The #MeToo moment: No longer complicit. Retrieved from  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/07/us/the-metoo-moment-no-longer-complicit.html

Bowen, S.A., & Heath, R.L. (2005). Issues management, systems, and rhetoric: exploring the distinction between ethical and legal guidelines at Enron. Journal of Public Affairs, 5(2), 84-98. doi: 10.1002/pa.l3

Bowley, G. (2018, April 25). Bill Cosby assault case: A timeline from accusation to sentencing. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/25/arts/television/bill-cosby-sexual-assault-allegations-timeline.html

Bruning, S.D., & Ledingham, J.A. (2002). Identifying the communication, behaviors, and interaction patterns of agency-client relationships in development and decline. Journal of Promotion Management, 8(2), 21-34. doi: 10.1300/J057v08n02_03

Cardwell, L.A., Williams, S., & Pyle, A. (2017). Corporate public relations dynamics: Internal vs. external stakeholders and the role of the practitioner. Public Relations Review, 43(1), 155-162. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2016.11.004 

Cooney, S. (2017, November 9). Here are all the public figures who’ve been accused of sexual misconduct after Harvey Weinstein. Retrieved from https://time.com/5015204/harvey-weinstein-scandal/

Lambert, C.A. (2011). Cinema Spin: Exploring Film Depictions of Public Relations Professionals. Communication Teacher, 25(4), 205-211. doi: 10.1080/17404622.2011.601716

Nark, M. (2017, November 30). A former NBC employee has accused Matt Lauer of locking her in his office and sexually assaulting her during the workday. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/matt-lauer-accused-sexual-assaulting-nbc-employee-office-2017-11

Reber, B.H., & Gower, K.K. (2006). Avow or avoid? The public communication strategies of Enron and WorldCom. Journal of Promotion Management, 12(3/4), 215-239. doi: 10.1300/J057v12n03_12

Shogren, E. (2011, April 21). BP: A textbook example of how not to handle PR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2011/04/21/135575238/bp-a-textbook-example-of-how-not-to-handle-pr

Tolentino, J. (2017, September 25). Gloria Allred’s crusade. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/02/gloria-allreds-crusade

Veil, S. R., Buehner, T., & Palenchar, M. J. (2011). A work-in-process literature review: Incorporating social media in risk and crisis communication. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 19(2), 110-122. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5973.2011.00639.x

Wigley, S., & Zhang, W. (2011). A study of practitioners’ use of social media in crisis planning. Public Relations Journal, 5(3) 1-16. Retrieved from https://prjournal.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2011WigleyZhang.pdf

PDF of book review:

Using Crisis Simulation to Enhance Crisis Management Competencies: The Role of Presence


Bryan Ming Wang

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

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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.

Figure 1

Crisis Synopsis (Left Column) and Discussion Points (Right Column)

Figure 1 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).

Table 1

Crisis Management Competences Pre-Post Simulation Comparisons


Item Pre-test α Pre-test

M (SD)

Post-test α Post-test

M (SD)

APR Crisis Management Competencies

(0 to 10 scale)

.89 5.92 (1.41) .91 7.65 (.95)
1. the roles and responsibilities of public relations at the pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis phrases 5.77 (1.45) 7.48 (1.01)
2. the messaging needs of each phase (i.e., pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis phases) 4.65 (1.66) 7.63 (1.81)
3. considering and accommodating all views on an issue or crisis 6.06 (1.98) 7.48 (1.16)
4. factoring multiple views into communication strategy and messaging 6.35 (1.78) 7.74 (1.10)
5. the importance of providing counsel to the management team or client during all stages of a crisis (pre-crisis, crisis and post-crisis) 6.77 (1.52) 7.93 (1.11)
Crisis management course competencies

(0 to 10 scale)

.93 5.18 (1.69) .89 7.50 (1.01)
1. doing crisis assessment 5.00 (1.79) 7.19 (1.42)
2. defining key publics 5.97 (1.91) 7.74 (.90)
3. composing key messages 5.81 (2.06) 7.93 (1.41)
4. composing supporting facts 5.42 (2.11) 7.93 (1.41)
5. understanding situational theory of publics 4.52 (2.05) 7.15 (1.46)
6. applying situational theory of publics 4.36 (1.94) 7.07 (1.36)

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).


Analytical Strategy

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.

Presence Effects

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.

Table 2

Effects of Presence on APR and Course Crisis Management Competencies


Model I:

APR Crisis Management Competencies

Model II:

Course Crisis Management Competencies

B (S.E.) β B (S.E.) β
Pre-test Competencies .382***


.551 .373***


Presence .352***


.442 .342***


Constant 2.471***




Adjusted R2 .740 .737
n 27 27


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.

Future Research

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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