All organizations face risk. Whether your entity is large or small, publicly traded or privately held, for profit or non-profit, global or local, at some point it will face a crisis. How you plan for, handle, recover from, and assess a crisis can significantly impact your organization, including its short-term business operations, reputation, long-term financial performance, and even the regulatory environment in which it operates.
So how do you minimize the business risk, maximize your organization’s resilience, and emerge stronger than before?
The good news is that there are astute leaders charged with making sure your organization can thrive well into the future: your board of directors. Models and structures vary depending on global geography, but boards largely share a “common purpose, which is the strategic oversight of an organization’s viability—its operational resilience, financial well-being, and reputation.” (Deloitte: Stepping in: The board’s role in crisis management) This means that your board is a key player in crisis management and communications. In fact, many boards have a risk committee to monitor, address, and advise on risks. The risk committee and board know that crisis management, like good corporate governance, is a focused, ongoing practice and not a reactive event.
This doesn’t mean that they write messaging, run tabletops, or create playbooks. The executive team and staff are responsible for crisis preparation, response, and recovery. Nor can boards take a hands-off approach, and simply be kept informed by the CEO. So, what’s the right role? Your board and its committee(s) should provide critical oversight to risk management efforts, such as regularly reviewing, challenging, advising on, or even securing additional resources for crisis management and communication efforts. (Note: There is one exception to this oversight role, where the board will assume greater responsibility and become the public face of the company: executive mismanagement.)
While communications staff and leaders often don’t work directly with the board, its governance and risk oversight are of great benefit to communicators. Boards are comprised of experienced directors from different industries, leadership roles, perspectives, and increasingly varied cultures and backgrounds. Who wouldn’t want to tap that expertise? Most importantly, however, having the right level of board involvement in crisis communications helps directors fulfill their fiduciary duty to shareholders and other stakeholders to protect the company.
By their very nature, crises are complex, ambiguous situations that evolve quickly, which means it’s imperative to operate with as much speed, clarity, and alignment as possible. (Bryghtpath: The Importance of Having a Crisis Communications Strategy) Having oversight and input from your board can facilitate the quality and speed of your crisis response—IF your directors have been engaged upfront. The old saying “You can’t educate in a crisis” applies to your board, too. To help them fulfill their governance responsibilities and maximize the benefit of their expertise, engage them regularly as you prepare for, respond to, and recover from crises.
Risk and Reputation Management
In order to manage risk, you need to know what your risks are, proactively monitor them, anticipate the impact to your stakeholders, and quickly be able to uncover new or emerging risks. You also need to understand the reputation attributes upon which you’ve built your brand, as risks in those areas can cause greater damage to the trust you’ve built with customers and other stakeholders. In addition, directors may need to communicate with certain external stakeholders, such as investors and regulators.
- Reporting: Is there a regular cadence of risk reporting to the board or one of its committees? If so, on which risks, and how often? What crisis plans are associated with the most serious risks? How are new or emerging risks quickly communicated outside the regular cadence? Who in your organization is charged with risk monitoring and reporting?
- Involvement: In addition to reporting, think of ways to have directors be involved (appropriately) in the process. This could mean being part of crisis simulations, securing external resources, sharing lessons from their previous experiences, or connecting leaders with experts or industry stakeholders.
While the risk committee and board should review plans and simulation results for your most likely, high-impact risks, they can’t review detailed crisis management and communication plans for every possible scenario. Nor should they. They can, however, make sure there is a “set of rules within a framework in which good decisions can be made, implemented and communicated,” which provides flexibility that can be applied to any risk or crisis situation. (Deloitte: Stepping in: The board’s role in crisis management) Having your board already aligned on the approach means the organization can mount a fast and effective response when any crisis hits, even ones not on your radar. Include key elements such as:
- Activation triggers, severity levels, and escalation criteria.
- Executive and team roles and responsibilities.
- Communication and reporting processes within the organization, among leaders, with the board, and with key stakeholders. (Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance: The Board’s Role in Confronting Crisis)
- Core messaging derived from your company’s values that will serve as the basis for situation-specific messaging.
Contacts and Channels:
Which executives communicate with your board, when, and on what topics? Typically, this will be the CEO, CFO, CRO, CSO, general counsel, corporate secretary, or CHRO communicating on a regular cadence according to the board and committee calendar.
- Understand if there’s a risk committee, who’s on it, and who is charged with communicating with its chair and members.
- How are risks, crisis plans, and monitoring reports shared with the board or risk committee? Unless you’re in a large organization with centralized risk, reputation, or communication functions, crisis plans likely will go up through their functional area to one of the key board contacts (i.e., data breach plans through the CIO). Keep in mind that communication is one part, albeit an important one, of overall crisis plans.
- If your organization has a chief communications officer or a similar role, is that leader known to the board? While they may go through the general counsel, corporate secretary, or another executive to communicate with the board, having your chief communications officer and directors become familiar with each other through board dinners (post-pandemic) or other interactions can be beneficial.
Most boards and executive teams have prescriptive processes for board communication that govern not only the contacts and channels but also prior review and approval, timing, length (brief = good!), program, format, file names… even font type and size. Who reviews and approves something going to the board? When do documents or pre-reads need to ready? Is there a common portal directors use, and who governs it? Do you need to provide PDFs? How will you receive feedback or approval? Know exactly what’s expected so you don’t miss crucial deadlines or detract from the quality of your information.
If you’re in sync with your executive team and board through preparation and planning, things will go more smoothly when a crisis hits.
- Activate your crisis communications plan and confirm with senior leadership the process for communicating with executives and the board, based upon the risk and its severity.
- Recognize that reporting may become a job in itself. Long-term, high-impact crises (i.e., COVID-19) may require frequent board updates on business continuity, stakeholder impacts, financial performance, and internal and external communications. Often this work falls to the communications department due to the cross-functional nature of their work. Dedicate sufficient resources to this reporting, including backups. While this is time-consuming work, it’s critical for the board and executive leadership, strengthens collaboration and helps the communications team stay alert to impacts across the enterprise.
- Address gaps and barriers. Processes often don’t work as well or as fast as people think they will, and speed is critical. Alert the appropriate leader if you aren’t getting the information, feedback, approval, or speed that the crisis demands.
- Be proactive. The communications team may be the first to realize that a situation is escalating, or that there’s a new wrinkle in the crisis. Escalate concerns quickly and appropriately.
- Be flexible. A weekly report may become a daily one. Processes that aren’t working will be updated in real-time. Your board and executive team are relying on you to help protect and enhance the company’s reputation.
After the crisis has been addressed, expect extensive reviews of what worked well and what could have been done differently. Embrace these learnings. Some feedback will be difficult to hear, especially if your team has been working 24/7 for weeks (or months). But it’s critical to strengthen your team, crisis function, and the enterprise.
The complexity, speed, and stakes of crises are higher than ever before. By thoughtfully engaging your board in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of crisis management and communication plans, you help the board fulfill its governance responsibilities, provide valuable oversight, strengthen the organization, and set a positive direction for the company’s future.
Our experts can help you
We’ve built the crisis management, crisis communications, and rapid response process for all sorts of organizations around the world – and trained their executives to be effective crisis leaders and communicators for their organizations. Our work has included significant engagement, such as training and exercises, for boards of directors.
Let us bring our expertise to your particular challenge. Contact us today at +1.612.235.6435 or via our contact form.
About the Author: Lena Michaud
Lena is a communications executive with 25 years of experience in the areas of public relations, crisis communications, media training, internal communications, change management, and speech writing and coaching.
She previously held leadership roles at Target Corporation, Optum (UnitedHealth Group), Cargill, and JCPenney, and has nearly 15 years of experience in the retail industry. Lena has served as a media spokesperson on critical issues in the areas of public affairs, social issues and activism, safety and security, corporate governance, human resources, and litigation, and most recently led communications related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She holds a B.A. in political science from Northwestern University and an advanced marketing certification from Southern Methodist University.
Learn more about Lena on her LinkedIn Profile