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Lessons Learned from Adversity
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
Simon Moore wants students to experience at least one crisis before leaving Bentley. It can be a tough lesson. But the associate professor of information design and corporate communication is preparing students for the tough situations that are inevitable in professional life.
“Every structure -- social, natural, corporate and political -- contains contradictions that are potentially the seeds of disaster,” Moore notes. “Crises are a vivid experience, and also a vivid learning experience.”
The syllabus for his Crisis Communication Management course, which debuted in spring 2010, reads like a company’s worst nightmare: product failure, blackmail and extortion, recalls, sudden acts of nature or terrorism. Students set aside the daily rule book of business to face situations marked by panic, confusion, incomplete knowledge, intense pressure, and fear. Strategic lessons follow.
“Dealing with crisis is like a chess game: You have to think several moves ahead,” explains Moore. “The tactical elements extend down to the verbs and adjectives in a single statement. One misplaced word can have disastrous results, but the right words can ensure that you leave the crisis stronger than when it started.”
The information age has precipitated change for companies facing crises. “Business operates in a volatile global, social and economic environment, and technology has increased the damage a crisis can inflict,” says Moore. “There’s pressure to deliver messages -- at Internet speed.”
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media create tighter response times and a more emotional environment for communication. Globalization can complicate matters with time zone issues, project teams scattered in several countries, and looser corporate loyalties due to outsourcing.
Smart companies are navigating the new landscape with a time-honored motto: Be prepared.
“Crisis communication teaches how to anticipate scenarios and responses, to show key audiences that you’ve learned from the experience,” Moore says. “Timing is everything,”
Each class meeting presents a different crisis. Discussion typically draws on lessons of actual events such as investor fraud and oil spills, while assignments involve composites: a mix of reality and fiction that sheds light on a particular facet of crisis. Student teams huddle over issues such as risk analysis, stakeholder management, media behavior, external relations, the role of regulators, and recovery planning.
“The course realistically mirrors the pressure of crisis management,” observes Management major John MacMullin, a part-time student who works as a business systems analyst at Philips Healthcare. “We needed to react immediately and draft essential next steps to minimize further damage.”
The format often sparks debate and pushes students outside their comfort zone.
“Deliberating over topics and working together to find solutions is improving my critical thinking skills,” says Amanda Helfand ’11, a Marketing and Liberal Studies major whose focus is Ethics and Social Responsibility. “In addition to giving my brain a good workout, I’m learning experientially by testing potential solutions in my head.”
Scenarios that are academic right now won’t stay that way, Moore insists. “Every Bentley graduate will be personally involved in at least one major business crisis during their career. I want to help ensure they have the tools to get themselves and their company or product out of the line of fire.”
Alison Davis-Blake, the former business school dean at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota, was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bentley University in a ceremony attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the extended Bentley community.