Seven Steps to Minimize Fallout from Crisis Situations

Published by

Corey E. Thomas

At some point, your organization is likely to encounter a crisis situation. As CEO of a cybersecurity company, I work with many organizations responding to security crises, such as breaches or disclosure of security issues in their products. How companies respond to these situations can make or break their reputation and customers’ trust in the organization, and impact the cost of the incident. This is also true for non-security-related incidents.

As board members, you can support—or even mandate—a response that will see your business weather the storm as well as could be hoped. Nobody likes to think about worst-case scenarios, but as board members you must hold the organization accountable for doing just that to ensure it is prepared in case disaster strikes.

My seven steps to minimizing fallout through crisis response are as follows:

1. Determine your guiding principle. Before you begin planning for, or responding to, a crisis, determine the overarching goal or guiding principle that drives decision-making throughout the organization’s response. This should be a principle that has been articulated in advance and is well understood by all stakeholders.

Guiding principles can vary greatly, and could include: protecting users, investors, or employees; minimizing disruption or cost to the business; or demonstrating leadership in your community. Spend time with the executive team and other key leaders in your organization to determine what makes the most sense for your business. Be sure to discuss the risks, benefits, requirements, and payoffs of various approaches.

2. Preparation is key. Next, identify a handful of crisis scenarios that could affect your business, and to determine which key players will drive the response. This will likely change from scenario to scenario. Once you know your scenarios and stakeholders, assign an owner to build response plans. These plans should include basic workflows for every scenario and a detailed matrix of roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders. The owner should work through the processes and expectations to ensure that everyone understands their role, and what their teammates will need throughout the process.

As a board member, you can support this by asking:

  • Do we have an up-to-date incident or crisis response plan for the organization? What scenarios are covered? Are there applicable scenarios that have not been included?
  • Who was involved in creating, reviewing, and approving the plan? Do all stakeholders understand what is expected of them?
  • What assets most need protecting to ensure effective business continuity?

3. Practice makes perfect. There is no such thing as perfect when it comes to crisis management, but ensuring that your organization’s response plan has been practiced will help you identify potential kinks in the process before they become significant issues. It will also help your cross-functional team build trust and better understand each other’s processes and needs.

As a board member, you can support this by asking:

  • When was the last time we ran a drill for our crisis response process?
  • What points were identified as improvement areas in our last crisis drill?
  • How frequently does our response team run drills or tabletop exercises?
  • How many different scenarios have been walked through?

4. Build trust among core stakeholders now. If you have followed steps 1 through 3, then you know who your core team is for a variety of scenarios. Depending on the size and complexity of your organization, the key stakeholders may not know each other well and may have minimal experience working together. A crisis is an incredibly challenging time to begin building relationships and trust.

Encourage your crisis response leaders to get to know each other sooner than later, possibly through presenting the crisis response plan to the board. When presenting, ask them to demonstrate familiarity with each other and their alignment. For example:

  • Ask them to explain each other’s role and goals through a given crisis response scenario.
  • Ask how they collectively judge the success of a crisis response.
  • Ask them to explain what they need from each other and the board or leadership team, and what they will provide themselves.

5. Set clear expectations. As much as the crisis response leaders need to build a plan and determine workflows for crisis scenarios, the board should also establish clear expectations and share them in advance. Bear in mind that your role is to help, not hinder, the organization’s ability to respond to a crisis, so whatever expectations you set with the crisis leaders or executive team should be as minimal or efficient as possible.

Consider the following:

  • When do you want to be informed of a potential crisis situation? For example, when it’s first discovered? Once it’s been verified? Once it’s resolved? Are there any industry-specific regulatory requirements for the timing of reporting on a crisis?
  • How do you want to be informed? Do you want communication to be over email, or should everyone get together for a call?
  • Are there categories of incident severity that trigger different responses? For example, will there be situations that you don’t need to know about, some that can just be included in the regular board reporting, and others that warrant dedicated communication?

6. Glide like a swan. As board members, you are no doubt adept at maintaining a professional demeanor in the face of stressful situations. Never is this more vital than during a crisis response. You need to set a tone for the executive team and crisis response team. If you get heated or upset, that will likely perpetuate the same behavior, and a lack of calm generally encourages mistakes to be made and people to become less effective.

Similarly, a lack of calm among responders and executives will likely reveal itself to others, whether inside or outside the organization. This may result in speculation that does more harm to employee or customer morale, or to stock price, than the incident itself. Avoid being the cause of additional stress for those managing the response, and keep in mind point 5 above. It’s fine to want to be kept informed, but take care not to distract or further stress out the core team.

7. Capture learnings and avoid blame. When responding to a crisis, it’s important to enable people to be honest about what happened, what could have or should have been done differently, and what lessons and next steps can be taken away. If everyone is worried they will be fired or publicly blamed, they will be less likely to be honest about what happened. As such, it’s essential during the crisis response that you avoid recriminations and blame.

After the incident has been resolved, ask the crisis response leaders to present key learnings to the board, including what action will be taken to ensure the scenario is unlikely to occur again. At this time, it may be appropriate to discuss accountability; this should be handled privately and with sensitivity.

As board members, you typically will not be on the front line of a crisis response. However, you can still influence its outcomes by encouraging preparation, ensuring alignment, and supporting an open, calm, and blame-free approach. This will enable your organization to put their best foot forward, and hopefully weather crises in the best possible way.

Corey E. Thomas is CEO of Rapid7. Read more of his insights here

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