Coping With the Unforeseen: Crisis Management for ESL Business Students

Coping With the Unforeseen
Crisis Management for ESL Business Students

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 23,785 views

After teaching ESL for twelve years, I felt like a new challenge.

My school was struggling to hire ESL Business teachers, so I volunteered. I’m not trained in business or economics, but I found that a few hours’ research equipped me sufficiently to guide ESL students through the most important topics. Ultimately, it’s just another subject area, like the weather, or sports, or family life, and if you’re looking for a fresh challenge, I encourage you to give it a try.


I’ve noticed a trend in the business press, and I knew it would make a good module for my ESL Business students. A portion of each day’s business and finance news seemed to focus on what was going wrong; businesses were going bankrupt or suffering from the aftermath of a scandal, or their share prices were plummeting following poor quarterly results. Our students will almost certainly encounter the unforeseen in their professional lives, and our two-day unit on crisis management has proved useful and popular.

4 Steps for Teaching Crisis Management to ESL Business Students

  1. 1

    Eliciting Examples

    We don’t have to look far to find examples of businesses in crisis. I found it useful to assign a short research task, after which small groups of my students reported on their topic to the class. A good range of past examples would include:

    • The Enron scandal
    • The collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers or AIG
    • The Deepwater Horizon disaster
    • The LIBOR scandal involving Barclays bank (among others)

    A quick analysis revealed the causes of the problem, the action taken by the company (which, we often found, was too little and too late), and the public reaction to the events. By briefly analyzing these crises, my students were already seeing some of the major crisis management methods in action.

  2. 2

    Crisis Management Tactics

    We moved straight onto brainstorming the methods a company might use to predict, deal with, and learn from crises. My more experienced classes were very familiar with these processes, while the younger students needed help to think them through:

    Before the Crisis:

    • Predict likely problems by researching the relevant geography, politics, environmental issues, personal concerns, etc.
    • Game out potential problems using role-plays and ‘war games’
    • Put draft crisis management action plans in place

    During the Crisis:

    • Gather as much information as possible
    • Bring in experts or advisors as needed
    • Be candid and honest with the public; we felt that companies risked much greater damage to their reputations by trying to obscure the truth

    After the Crisis:

    • Carry out damage limitation, but continue to be up-front and honest about what’s happened
    • Begin the process of arranging insurance claims, compensation or reimbursement
    • Most importantly, learn as much as possible from the events, and channel this new knowledge into an updated mitigation and crisis avoidance plan, so that the same problem can’t recur.
  3. 3

    Practicing Crisis Management Methods

    Before delving into detailed scenarios, give your students a few moments to consider the crisis response of an oil company, a tech giant, and perhaps a national government’s Foreign Affairs department. What plans would they put in place in advance of a crisis? What kind of role-plays would be useful preparation?

    Then, throw them a crisis and see how they deal with it. An oil spill, a huge information leak or technical failure, or a sudden flare-up of tension overseas all serve as good initial examples. What additional advice would they need? What information would they release, and when, and how?

    Then, have them continue to the post-crisis phase. What might the financial costs be, both in the short- and long-term? What might their organization be able to learn from such a crisis, and how might they prepare for another similar issue in the future?

  4. 4

    More Complex Scenarios

    This is where you have the chance to bring in some creativity. It’s easier than you might think to design a three-stage crisis management exercise which is built like this:

    1. The students read a simple background sheet on their company and the threats it faces. They assess what they might need in place, to be prepared for crises in these different areas.
    2. The crisis unfolds. An event occurs which requires quick but careful responses, sensitive handling of the media, and good communication with stakeholders.
    3. The crisis is resolved, leaving the team to analyze its response and plan to meet such crises more quickly and efficiently in the future.

Here are some favorite scenario types for practicing crisis management skills:

  1. 1

    Public Outrage.

    A movie or video game release prompts a furious response from the media, churches, and/or the public. Do you agree to tone down the content, or rail against such enforced self-censorship?

  2. 2

    Disaster on Everest.

    An adventure vacation company suffers the tragic loss of two of its customers on Mt. Everest. Do you succumb to public pressure and cancel future expeditions, or maintain that your clients suffered from bad luck, and resolve to continue providing such high-risk services?

  3. 3

    The Oil Spill.

    One of your tankers runs aground and the local coastline is inundated by poisonous oil. This isn’t going to be easy, but how can you reassure your shareholders, handle the public and media, and address the inevitable environmental costs?

  4. 4

    The Rollercoaster Crash.

    Two teenagers are badly injured while riding a newly-opened white-knuckle experience at one of your theme parks. Do you close the ride, or perhaps the whole park? For how long? How could you persuade the public that your rides are safe?

  5. 5

    The Whistleblower.

    A former employee goes public with allegations of worker mistreatment and poor safety provisions at your company’s factory in Asia. How do you handle the media storm? Do you agree to invest millions in upgrading the factory, or insist that your facilities are safe, according to local codes of practice?

I’m sure you can think of your own – a glance at the business press will provide more examples on which to base scenarios – and I hope you enjoy creating these exercises and then developing them after each class to make them more engaging, controversial, or just plain fun.

Crisis Management is a great example of where realistic scenarios can help to hone useful skills as well as eliciting lots of great speaking practice.

By monitoring the exercise carefully, and including the whole class, these can become memorable and enjoyable exercises with a surprisingly real sense of shared purpose.

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