In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & Chief Executive Bryan Strawser discusses the best way to engage your board of directors in your crisis communication strategy.
Topics discussed include board of directors and C-suite engagement, crisis management, crisis communications, reputation and issues management strategies, and crisis exercises.
Related Episodes & Blog Posts
- Blog Post: Engaging your Board of Directors on your Crisis Communications Strategy
- Blog Post: The Importance of Having a Crisis Communications Strategy
- Episode #117: What Successful Crisis Management Looks Like Internally
- Episode #: 125 – What is resilience?
Hello, and Welcome to the Managing Uncertainty podcast. This is Bryan Strawser, Principal and Chief Executive here at Bryghtpath. And in this week’s episode, I’d like to talk about your crisis communication strategy and what is the best way to engage your board of directors, as you think about how to build your crisis comms strategy.
The way I think about it is every organization faces risk. Whether you are a small or large entity, publicly traded, privately held, for-profit, non-profit, global, or local, at some point, you’re going to face a crisis. How you plan for, handle or manage, recover from and assess a crisis can significantly impact your organization, including your short-term business operations, your reputation, your long-term financial performance, and even the regulatory environment in which you operate.
So how do you minimize that risk, maximize your organization’s resilience and emerge stronger than before? The good news is, is that you have astute leaders that are charged with making sure your organization can thrive well into the future. And that group of leaders is your board of directors. Now your model and your structure might vary depending upon global geography, but boards largely share a common purpose. It is about the strategic oversight of your organization’s viability, your operational resilience, your reputation, and your financial wellbeing. This means your board is a key player in crisis management and communications. In fact, many boards have a risk committee to monitor, assess and advise on risks. Your risk committee and your board know that crisis management and crisis communications like good corporate governance is a focused, ongoing practice and not a reactive event. This doesn’t mean that why they write messaging, run tabletops or create playbooks. That’s not what they’re there for. The executive team and staff and management are responsible for crisis preparation, response, and recovery. Boards also can’t take a hands-off approach and simply be kept informed by the CEO.
So what’s the right role? Your board and its committees should provide critical oversight to your risk management efforts, such as regularly reviewing challenging, advising on, or even securing additional resources for crisis management and crisis communication efforts. Note that there’s an exception here to that oversight rule. And that’s where the board will assume greater responsibility and become the public face of the company. And that’s when there’s executive mismanagement or CEO malfeasance that happens. While your communication 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, bring different perspectives, and have increasingly more diverse cultures and backgrounds. Who wouldn’t want to tap into that expertise? Most importantly, however, having the right level of board involvement in crisis communications helps your directors fulfill their fiduciary duty to shareholders and other stakeholders to protect the company.
By the very nature, crises are complex ambiguous situations that evolve quickly, and that means it’s imperative to operate with as much speed and clarity, and alignment as possible. But having oversight and input from your board can facilitate the quality and speed of your crisis response if you’ve engaged your directors upfront. There’s that old saying you can’t educate in a crisis, and that applies to your board too. To help your board fulfill their governance responsibilities and maximize the benefit of their expertise, you want to engage them regularly as you prepare for, respond to, and recover from a crisis. To manage risk, you need to know where those 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 built your brand as risks in those areas can cause greater damage to the trust that you’ve built with stakeholders and your customers.
In addition, directors may need to communicate with certain external stakeholders such as investors and regulators. From a reporting standpoint, is there a regular cadence of risk reporting to the board or to one of its committees? If so, on what risks and how often? What crisis plans are associated with your most serious risks? How are new and emerging risks quickly communicated outside of the regular cadence? Who in your organization is charged with risk monitoring and reporting? Intrusive involvement from your board, think of ways to have your directors be involved appropriately in the process. That could mean being part of a crisis simulation, securing external resources, sharing lessons from their previous experience with management or connecting leaders with experts or industry stakeholders.
While the risk committee and your board should review plans and simulation or exercise results for your most likely high impact risks, they can’t review detailed crisis management and communication plans for every possible scenario and nor should they. They can, however, make sure that there’s a set of rules within a framework in which good decisions can be made, implemented, and communicated. That provides flexibility that can be applied to any risk or crisis situation.
Having your board already aligned on the approach means the organization can mount a fast and effective response when any crisis hits, even when there’s ones not on your radar. You want to make sure that you’ve included key elements such as activation triggers, severity levels in escalation criteria, executive and management team roles and responsibilities, communication and reporting processes within the organization among leaders with the board and with your key stakeholders, and core messaging that’s derived from your company’s values that will serve as the basis for situational specific messaging.
Which executives communicate with your board and on what topics? This is typically going to be the CEO, your CFO, your chief risk officer, chief security officer, corporate secretary, chief HR officer, general counsel. There’ll be some cadence of regular communication according to your board and committee calendar. You want to understand if there’s a risk committee, who’s on it, and who’s 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 a centralized risk reputation or comms function, crisis plans will likely go up through their functional areas to one of the keyboard contacts. For example, data breach plans might go through the CIO or CISO. Keep in mind that communication is one part, but an important part of your overall crisis management plans. If your organization has a chief communications officer or a similar role, is that leader known to the board? While they might report up or go through the general counsel or corporate secretary or another executive to communicate to the board, having your chief comms officer and directors be familiar with each other through board dinners, committee meetings, or other interactions can be beneficial.
Most boards and executive teams will have prescriptive processes for board communication that govern not only the contacts and the channels but also the process for prior review and approval, timing, length, program, format, file names, even font type, and size sometimes. So in your company, who reviews and approves something that’s going to the board? When do documents or pre-reads need to be ready? Is there a common portal or application that directors use and who governs it? Do you need to provide material in PDF form? How will you receive feedback or approval? Make sure that you understand 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 your board through preparation and planning, things will go more smoothly when a crisis hits. Think about activating your crisis comms plan and confirming with senior leadership, the process for communicating with executives and the board based upon the risk and severity of the situation.
Recognize that reporting can become a job in itself. Long-term high-impact crises like the one we’ve been in with COVID-19 might require frequent board updates about business continuity, stakeholder impact, financial performance, and internal and external communications. This work often will fall to the communications department due to the cross-functional nature of your work, so be sure to dedicate sufficient resources to this reporting, including backups. While this is time-consuming work, it’s critical for the board and executive leadership, so it strengthens collaboration and it helps the comms team stay alert to impacts across the organization.
Address gaps and barriers. Processes often don’t work as well or as fast as people think they will and that therefore, speed is critical. Alert the appropriate leader if you’re not getting the information, feedback, approval, or speed that the crisis demands. Be proactive. The communications team might 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, and then be flexible. A weekly report could have to become a daily report. Processes that are not working will need to be updated in real-time. Your board and executive team are relying upon 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 those 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, the crisis function, the process in your organization.
The complexity speed and stakes of crises are higher than ever before. By thoughtfully engaging your board in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of your crisis management and crisis communications 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.
Here at Bryghtpath, we’ve built the crisis management, communications, and rapid response processes for all sorts of organizations around the world, and then train and practiced with their executives to be effective crisis leaders and communicators for their organization. Our work has included significant engagements, such as training and exercises with boards of directors. If we can help you with this particular challenge, contact us today at 6122356435. That’s it for this edition of the Managing Uncertainty podcast, we’ll be back next week with another new episode. Be well.