Recently, I was asked to participate in a crisis drill for a client. During these drills, companies practice for an emergency by pretending to deal with a real one, and incorporating lessons learned into their crisis plans. It’s an excellent way to keep skills sharp and ensure that everyone knows what to do in the event of a real emergency.

Crisis training and drills are nothing new- companies have been doing them for years. On the public relations side, practitioners have worked to master their communication skills to be ready for a bona fide crisis: sample press releases are drafted, media contact lists developed, and interviews rehearsed. What struck me during this most recent drill was the introduction of social media, meaning a simulated (read: not real) social media blitz resulting from the drill’s scenario. Just like social media has disrupted the news business by empowering citizens to report and discuss their own news, the injection of social media into the crisis drill was also extremely disruptive. I loved it.

Why? Because in any crisis, or even high-profile public debates, social media is a powerful force to be reckoned with, and communication professionals need to learn to deal with it. As the simulated crisis unfolded during the daylong drill, the social media intensity grew, and I began to sweat. I was handling a simulated, non-visible twitter account, complete with fake personas of real people who would weigh in on a real crisis, and trying to track down information and answer their questions quickly. Just like in real life, some of the online comments were quite snarky and rude. But hey, better to learn how to handle these situations during a drill then feeling your way in the dark during a real emergency.

The takeaway here is this: take a look at your crisis plan, assuming your company or organization has one. Does it include an updated means of handling social media during an emergency? Even if it does, has your communications staff practiced, in real time, how to handle the onslaught of activity? If not, the best time to prepare for the worst time is today.