While technical defenses might help stave off some attempted hacks, sooner or later a company will become a victim of cybercrime, and a contingency plan for communicating about the aftermath of an attack is critical for any organization. RANE recently reached out to several experts for their advice to companies for managing the flow of information and maintaining control of an organization’s reputation in the event of a breach.
The Initial Response
Ann Walker Marchant
“There’s a lot to gain or lose when you approach the equity you’ve built in your brand—and trustworthiness is part of the value of your brand,” says Ann Walker Marchant, CEO of The Walker Marchant Group. After a breach, an organization’s leadership must keep in mind all of the people who have placed trust in the brand. The impacted enterprise must convey that it is “willing to do whatever it takes to ensure you minimize risk to them,” she adds.
“You have to understand that it’s most important you’re communicating with your own people internally,” Christopher Winans, executive vice president and general manager at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, argues. Organizations should not allow internal stakeholders to learn about a crisis from external sources. “When your own people are finding out through press reports, it harms confidence within your [entire organization].”
“With a cybersecurity breach, you often don’t know what’s been compromised, at least at the very beginning,” Walker Marchant explains. Often, the best bet is to expect the worst. “You’ve got to assume they’ve got everything and act accordingly without appearing to create fear and panic with your internal and external audiences,” while simultaneously dealing with pressure from various audiences and stakeholders, Walker Marchant said.
Reaching Out to Regulators
A client update published by Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, titled “How to Disclose a Cybersecurity Event: Recent Fortune 100 Experience,” states that Fortune 100 companies disclosed 20 “incidents of major data breaches or cybersecurity events between January 2013 through the third quarter of 2015.” Most of the affected organizations made initial public announcements via news reports instead of a current report on Form 8-K. Debevoise & Plimpton notes that companies that did go the Form 8-K route “most often did so where the breach involved customer financial information.” Organizations, the report’s authors add, “should also be mindful of selective disclosure issues and their obligations under Regulation FD.”
Debevoise & Plimpton also warns against the risk of disclosing incomplete information regarding a breach, noting that “the ‘known’ facts may represent a small piece of the cybersecurity risk mosaic, which can require significant forensic research to assemble.” Potential inaccuracies in any disclosure represent yet another risk for organizations.
Subsequent reporting of updated cyber risk factors were largely contingent upon how breaches were initially disclosed in periodic corporate reports. In annual reports that come after a material breach, the Debevoise & Plimpton report notes, many corporations “view their annual report as an opportunity to update and tailor risk factors more generally, and the occurrence of an intervening cybersecurity event provides fodder for such fine tuning.”
Differing Perspectives Within an Organization
Caution is important, although any delay in responding in a timely manner also presents a risk for targeted enterprises. At the outset of planning the response, Winans adds, “It is better to tell your constituencies what you don’t know than it is not to tell them anything.”
However, there are often conflicting viewpoints of how to act in the immediate aftermath. “The tech guys will weigh in and say the best thing the company can do is get a hold of the FBI and find all the things in the network that are screwed up so they can take action to fix it,” says Steven Bucci, a visiting fellow for special operations and disaster management at The Heritage Foundation. “But you’d be hard pressed to find any lawyers to give their leaders that advice; instead, they’ll say it will hurt the company’s bottom line, it’ll hurt the company’s stock, and it could open up the organization to claims by competitors. While all of that, frankly, is true, that leaves the organization as vulnerable as they were before the breach—and probably also in violation with the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as open to potential lawsuits from customers or clients.”
Still, it’s understandable that a cautious approach may appeal to many who don’t want to create panic, or those who are simply conflicted over the best course of action, Walker Marchant says. On the other hand, any delay in crafting a measured public response can result in harm to an organization’s brand equity. “Stakeholders will want to know who knew what, when, and why didn’t you tell us?”
Winans says that a clear organizational response plan that involves upper management is crucial before a crisis. “The very first thing you need to do is create a team, a coordinating committee, that is made up of all the functional parts of the company—the C-suite, the CEO or COO. Ideally, it’s got to be the leader of the company that takes charge of the situation, and you have to have people from HR, legal, operations, IT and investor relations.” For a company that answers to a variety of regulators, it’s even more important to get people in different roles together.
“That’s a team that needs to meet every day,” Winans adds. And before an actual breach takes place, that same team should be practicing how they will respond to a worst-case scenario. Winans proposes a “flight school.” “We set up people to actually play out an actual scenario,” he says. “The whole thing is designed to feel like an actual crisis.”
Lessons of a Real World Response
The Sony Pictures hack is an instance where the company was a little more forthcoming, at least with law enforcement, because they had no idea who could be penetrating their systems so extensively. Nevertheless, they suffered serious criticism and ridicule for how poorly they guarded their network.
“Exactly what the breach entailed wasn’t clear at the very beginning,” Walker Marchant says. “It was death by a thousand knife wounds because it was that trickle-down approach, because every day was something different.” Lists of salaries, copies of unreleased films, and sensitive e-mail from senior leadership were also part of the data theft. Still, Bucci argues that “while they did get beat up pretty badly,” in the end “they got through it faster and with far more sympathy from the public by saying, ‘We got hammered.’”
As recent examples of flawed responses by organizations following cyber breaches highlight the risks of incomplete or inaccurate information, boards have one clear warning: Doing nothing is not an option. The age of instant communications and 24/7 media coverage ensures that very little in the cybersecurity universe can reliably remain under wraps for long—lessons that others have already learned the hard way.
“I think the biggest mistake is deluding yourself that you can contain this and no one will find out,” Winans says. “The fact is that very often the worst thing that can happen to a company isn’t a crisis situation. It’s how they respond to it.”
About the Experts
Steven Bucci is a Visiting Fellow for Special Operations and Disaster Management, as well as primary instructor in leadership, at The Heritage Foundation.
Debevoise & Plimpton LLPis a premier law firm with market-leading practices, a global perspective and strong New York roots.
Ann Walker Marchant is recognized as a preeminent strategist and counselor with more than 20 years of experience developing and leading wide-ranging initiatives for the White House and Fortune 100 brands.
Christopher Winans, executive vice president and general manager at Hill+Knowlton Strategies in New York, has 22 years of experience in journalism, 10 of those at The Wall Street Journal.
RANE is an information services and advisory company serving the market for global enterprise risk management. Learn more at www.ranenetwork.com.
With an expected regulatory downshift under the incoming Trump Administration, standard-setting for business conduct may move from the government to the corporate sector, with shareholders and socially conscious directors driving the trend in myriad areas, from industry-specific concerns such as animal welfare to broader issues such as climate change. To be sure, we will continue to see proxy resolutions in the dozen general categories that have become hallmarks for activists, but the rise in attention to social issues by activists seems inevitable (See Figure 1).
Corporate leaders and major shareholders alike are recognizing the role that social issues can play in corporate value. In 2016, corporate leaders and prominent investors issued “Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance,” a collaborative document containing a key message: “Our future depends on…companies being managed effectively for long-term prosperity, which is why the governance of American companies is so important to every American.” Among their recommendations was the suggestion that boards pay attention to “material corporate responsibility matters” and “shareholder proposals and key shareholder concerns.”
As revealed in the NACD Resource Center on Board-Shareholder Engagement, proxy resolutions can play a role in raising board awareness of key issues. Although shareholder resolutions rarely win by a majority, and even then are only “precatory” (non-mandatory), they do raise boards’ awareness of issues and can spark change over time. Many of today’s governance practices began as failing proxy resolutions but ended up as majority practices, with or without proxy votes.
Take for example proxy bylaw amendments, which have only been fair game for proxy votes since spring 2012 (thanks to a new rule that removed director nominations from the list of topics disallowed for shareholder resolutions). That season saw only three proxy access resolutions at the largest 250 companies, and only one got a majority vote. Fast forward to spring 2016 when 28 companies had such votes, and nearly half succeeded in getting a majority vote. By December 2016, proxy access had been adopted by a majority of Fortune 500 companies, as Sidley Austin reports. Those early proxy access resolutions lost their early battles, but in the end, they won the larger war. The same could happen over time to social resolutions over the next four years.
Directors Want More Dialogue on Social Issues
Interestingly, directors seem to be intuiting that they will need to step up on social issues this year.The 2016-2017 NACD Public Company Governance Survey, which features responses from 631 directors surveyed in 2016, reveals a significant finding in this regard. When asked to judge the ideal amount of time to be spent on various boardroom topics, directors ranked five topics as highest in terms of needing more discussion time:
director succession; and
corporate social responsibility.
One in three respondents said they would like more time devoted to discussing the “social responsibility” topic. For all issues other than these five, fewer than a third of respondents said that the topics merited more board attention. While this is a relatively new question, NACD has asked similar questions in the past, and this is the first time our respondents have ever ranked social issues so highly as a “need to know” topic.
A Gravitational Pull to Social Issues With a Strategic Slant
So what lies ahead for the next proxy season in the social domain? Aristotle is attributed with coining the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum,” a theorem in physics aptly applied to the likely vacuum in new corporate rule-making in 2017. USA-first trade rules aside, we believe that shareholder activists may try to fill the break in Dodd-Frank rule making with their own social agendas.
As we go to press, attorney Scott Pruitt is slated to head his institutional nemesis, the Environmental Protection Agency, while Governor Rick Perry, former leader of oil-rich Texas, is in line to direct the Department of Energy. Neither man is likely to crack down on carbon-based fuels, so if shareholders want carbon reduction, they will need to redouble their own efforts—and indeed that seems to be the plan.
According to the environmental group Ceres, quoted in an overview by Alliance Advisors, LLC, U.S. public companies will face some 200 resolutions on climate change in 2017, up from a total 174 such resolutions during 2016. This prediction may be conservative. According to Proxy Monitor, in 2016 the 250 largest companies alone saw 58 environmental proposals—meaning that nearly one out of every four large companies faced one.
In other developments, As You Sow, a community of socially engaged investors, has already announced 46 of its own proxy resolutions, including three on executive pay. All the rest are on social issues, including climate change (11), coal (10), consumer packaging (5), and smaller numbers of resolutions in a variety of other social issues, including antibiotics and factory farms, genetically modified organisms, greenhouse gas, hydraulic fracturing, methane, nanomaterials, and pharmaceutical waste. The gist of many of these resolutions is to ask for more disclosure, including more information on the impact of current trends on the company’s strategy and reputation. For example, the “climate change” resolution in the Exxon Mobile proxy statement asks Exxon to issue a report “summarizing strategic options or scenarios for aligning its business operations with a low carbon economy.”
Similarly, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility has already announced the filing of five shareholder resolutions for the 2017 proxy of its longtime target Tyson Foods on a variety of issues, including one on the strategic implications of plant-based eating. Sponsored by Green Century Capital Management, the resolution seeks to learn what steps the company will take to address “risks to the business” from the “increased prevalence of plant-based eating.”
In the same vein, at Post Holdings, which holds its shareholder meeting January 28, a shareholder resolution from Calvert Investment Management asks for disclosure of “major potential risks and impacts, including those regarding brand reputation, customer relations, infrastructure and equipment, animal well-being, and regulatory compliance.” Note that animal welfare is only one factor here; Calvert is making a business case for the social change.
The demographic and expertise-based makeup of public company boards has come under increasing scrutiny from investors as numerous studies continue to correlate elements of diversity with improved company performance.
The National Association of Corporate Directors’ Report of the NACD 2016 Blue Ribbon Commission on Building the Strategic-Asset Board emphasized the essential task of assembling and assessing a board best fit to tackle the challenges of the constantly-changing business environment. At its core, the successful strategic-asset board is a mix of directors with diverse backgrounds who are fit to the purpose of complex oversight. And the demand for diversity is not just about market-based performance—the evidence also shows that diverse boards engage in more robust debates, make decisions that are sounder than they would be otherwise, better understand their customers, and attract higher-performing employees.
For smaller public companies in the U.S., underperformance in board diversity is even more pronounced. In November 2016, Equilar released a report revealing that small public companies lag behind S&P 500 companies when it comes to board diversity. For example, 23.3 percent of Russell 3000 companies in 2016 had all-male boards versus 1.4 percent of S&P 500 boards.
But does this study tell the whole story? Gender diversity on boards understandably receives the most attention because it’s one of the easiest metrics to quantify. However, measuring progress with the broad brush stroke of S&P 500 (or even Russell 3000) gender statistics does a disservice to the full story of diversity on a company’s board. Diversity in the boardroom best serves a corporation when it’s addressed in a holistic manner, taking into account age, experience, race, and skill sets along with gender. In fact, when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted diversity disclosure rules in 2009, it allowed companies to provide their own definition of diversity.
At Nasdaq, we’ve taken a detailed look at the board composition of listed companies, including those too small to be included in much-publicized diversity studies. In doing so, we found promising signs of progress. For example, 14 Nasdaq companies have reached or exceeded gender parity in the boardroom versus five companies in the S&P 500. In 2016, 75 women were elected to a Nasdaq-listed company board for the first time. Many of these women came from outside the C-suite, recruited from non-corporate professional disciplines such as university administration, government, medicine, public education, and journalism.
We also discovered that many Nasdaq companies have compelling stories to tell with respect to board composition and their own diversity of age, gender, race, and skill sets. Unfortunately, their efforts go largely unnoticed for the simple reason that they aren’t sharing their story. Only a handful of companies highlight board composition in their proxies using charts and graphs to summarize their board profile metrics. Yet these metrics offer stakeholders valuable insights into the board’s ability to oversee and support management and its strategic plan.
At Nasdaq, we see ourselves not just as a public company, but also as a model for our nearly 3,000 listed issuers. One example of this is our 2016 Proxy Statement in which we enhanced board transparency through graphics and statistics on a variety of metrics. This data illustrates not only the gender diversity of our board, but also the diversity of skills and experience present. We believe this information is valuable for shareholders and the market and we will continue to share it.
As the head of the SEC, an agency focused on disclosure to investors, Chair Mary Jo White observed in a recent speech that “A growing number of company proxy statements have recently begun to voluntarily provide an analysis of data, accompanied by pie charts and bar graphs, to describe the state of the board’s gender, race and ethnic diversity composition, sometimes in addition to other categories… This more specific information is clearly more useful to investors.” In fact, we found a number of Nasdaq-listed companies (both small and large) that shared diversity metrics around board composition in their proxy statements in 2016. These companies include:
As companies continue to prepare for the upcoming proxy season, we encourage your board to consider simple report enhancements that increase the transparency around the diversity of boards, including disclosing not only a board member’s gender and age, but also their ethnicity, skills, and experience. Until such transparency of board composition metrics becomes the norm, the full story of corporate board diversity and the valuable insights it provides to investors will remain obscured.
Lisa Roberts is a vice president in Nasdaq’s Legal and Regulatory Group, where she co-leads the Listing Qualifications department and advises on governance matters for our issuer community. She also manages our Governance Clearinghouse website, which includes original articles on a variety of topics relevant to public companies, such as market structure, corporate sustainability, boardroom diversity, legislative advocacy, cybersecurity, and risk management. This site is available to all public companies and their advisors free of charge.
This communication and the content found by following any link herein are being provided to you by Nasdaq, Inc. for informational purposes only. The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author at the time of publication and may not be updated. They do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc. The content does not attempt to examine all the facts and circumstances which may be relevant to any particular situation and nothing contained herein should be construed as legal advice.