Students tackle intense simulation to learn about crisis communication

Are you really prepared to handle a crisis when it strikes?

That's the question communication students had to answer at a crisis communication simulation held on Thursday, May 1, at Radford University.

Groups of students from the School of Communication took on the role of real organizations such as Radford University, Carilion New River Valley Medical Center, the City of Radford and the Montgomery County Health Department as they faced a simulated outbreak of a deadly strain of meningitis on the RU campus.

Assistant Professor John Brummette was the faculty organizer for the event. Students in his COMS 408 - PR Management and COMS 430 – Crisis Communication courses took part in the simulation, which was broken into three phases, offering participants new information and approximating the passage of time during the crisis.

According to Brummette, students did not perform perfectly but identifying mistakes in a controlled setting was the point of the exercise.

"I think they made some mistakes, but they'll end up being some very good learning experiences," Brummette said. "That's what a simulation is for. It's better to do it here than in a real crisis situation."

The students were made well aware of how daunting the task of crisis communication and management truly is.

"No matter how much you prepare, there will always be unforeseen circumstances and slip ups that you have to be able to think quickly to react to," said senior Kelly Prince, a communication major from Smith Mountain Lake.

As the simulation went on, the students had to respond to rumors of a deadly outbreak, infection of eight students, a quarantine of campus and coordination with agencies that could provide treatment. Each of the simulated groups found that communication was the key to managing the crisis.

"We had a few bumps in the road when trying to organize our course of action because it was difficult to communicate with everyone in an organized manner," Prince said "Despite that, when it came time to present and defend our decisions to the media, we stood together and were successful in managing the situation at hand."

The "media" in this case consisted of a panel of graduate communication students from Brummette's Applied Communication Research course. The nine graduate students received information about each phase of the crisis before the events and were prepared to turn the heat up on the undergraduates.

"This is a chance for these students to get actual experience in a crisis," said Max Esterhuizen, a first-year graduate student, and videographer for the event. Between phases, Esterhuizen assumed the role of a news channel cameraman charged with taping interviews of participants. "It's also a good experience for them to practice interviews. They got a lot better as the simulation went on even though it's a really difficult experience."

In the end, students gained valuable practical insight into the challenges of crisis communication.

"It's easy to answer questions on a test but to be able to remember theories and rules in a live, dynamic setting demonstrates a deeper understanding of the material. To be able to get through an event such as this gives me the confidence that I could succeed in a real life public relations setting," Prince said.

May 6, 2014