Just three days before the 2010 Super Bowl, Sen. John McCain tweeted a message critical of the U.S. Census Bureau. McCain said the bureau's purchase of $2.5 million of advertising during the game to urge citizens to fill out their census form was wasteful spending.

Suddenly, the Minneapolis office of Weber Shandwick, which handled media and public relations for the bureau, had 72 hours to counter McCain's tweet to his 1.7 million followers. Through a variety of outlets -- Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Fox News -- the Weber Shandwick team spread the message that it would cost $80 million to send out individuals to knock on doors and count heads for every one percent of the population that didn't return the forms.

"That was more than the cost of advertising," said David Krejci, Weber Shandwick's social media crisis expert. "The speed [in getting the message out] was really, really impressive."

It then dawned on Krejci (pronounced Krage) that other companies might want similar crisis response policies when they must respond to social media-driven criticism, a natural disaster or some sort of corporate faux pax. Krejci's team created a program called "Fire Bell." For each client, Weber Shandwick replicates the firm's website and puts its key executives through an intense workout through a fictitious, but believable, ripped-from-the-headlines crisis.

"If we could recreate that adrenaline rush, then everyone could learn," Krejci said. "Social media creates a different environment. You can't sit around with 10 people and react five days later. It is now dialogue versus a press conference."

Since launching in 2010, Fire Bell was honored this year as PR Innovation of the Year by PRWeek and by PRNews last year as Best New Digital Service/Product/App. So far, Weber Shandwick has conducted 14 "Fire Bell" seminars at a charge of $15,000 to $20,000 each.

For Cindy Droog, senior public relations specialist for Amway, her crisis simulation dealt with a threatened class action lawsuit against the direct-sale company whose business line includes health, beauty and home care products. The Amway response team included members from human resources, the legal department, public relations and government affairs.

"It was very realistic and it was something that could have been potentially devastating," Droog said. "It helped us with our response time and it helped other departments see the need to be faster. Until people saw the simulation, they didn't realize how fast you need to be on this."

As a result, Amway, a $9.2 billion company, now has an "eResponder" strategy that involves a conference call with key players within 20 minutes of the start of a crisis and reduces the number of players who have to sign off on a statement in response to whatever is happening.

In a slide presentation to potential clients, Weber Shandwick says reputation risk is the highest risk factor for companies, and the first two hours of a crisis can determine the public's perception of an organization. Some companies already are learning the value of quick response.

A few years ago, a YouTube video of Domino's cooks contaminating food during preparation went viral. Within 48 hours, the company's CEO appeared on YouTube, denouncing the two employees, emphasizing that wasn't the Domino's way. Recently, Southwest Airlines was the subject of tweets by Hollywood producer Kevin Smith after he was asked to leave a flight because of his large size. Within 16 minutes the airline replied with tweets apologizing to Smith.

In both cases, the companies were smart to go back and reply on the same venue where the crisis started, Krejci said. "You have to jump in an instant."

David Phelps • 612-673-7269