Ready for anything?
Four benchmarks for an excellent response to a business continuity crisis.
Imagine an organization that is thriving. It has the right people in the right places, a growth mindset and a plan to accelerate in its market.
And then, disaster. It could be a data breach, cyberattack, single point of failure, human error, natural disaster, pandemic – anything. What’s the plan?
There are two paths forward. One leads to chaos, a loss of confidence among employees, customers and partners, and long-term damage. The other path leads to opportunity, strengthened relationships and a successful future.
The path this thriving, growing, accelerating organization advances upon comes down to how – and how quickly – it responds to this business continuity crisis.
With varying levels of threat circling every business,
everywhere, at all times, it’s imperative that leaders
take actionable steps today toward tomorrow’s survival.
Abraham Lincoln knew this and offered sage, succinct
advice: “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow
by evading it today.”
The wisdom remains prescient. In “What sets the world’s best CEOs apart,” a synopsis from a McKinsey & Company podcast interview with strategy & corporate finance communications director Sean Brown, every single one of the six elements of CEO excellence includes a business continuity-esque trait:
- Make bold moves early
- Combine speed with agility
- Ensure coherence
- Promote a forward-looking agenda
- Build resilience ahead of a crisis
- Manage time and energy
At a time in which businesses face operational uncertainty
based on economic markets, public health challenges,
climate change and a rapidly evolving technology
landscape (among other shifting dynamics), the
importance of planning for anything has never been
The single most imperative aspect of an excellent business continuity plan is that it’s ready and waiting to execute long before the crisis occurs.
Become ready to execute at a moment’s notice by creating a strategy focused on these four benchmarks for implementing an excellent response to a business continuity crisis – now, before it’s needed next.
1 Anticipation: Deploy with earned confidence
In Harvard Business Review’s “How businesses can brace for catastrophe,” Yvette Mucharraz y Cano shares
her research about businesses that survived the 2017
earthquake in Mexico City, which killed 370 people
and injured thousands more. Centered around the idea
of organizational resilience, her research finds that
post-disaster success didn’t occur by chance. Rather,
businesses developed this organizational resilience
through three stages: anticipation, coping and adaptation.
Focusing on the anticipation phase, Mucharraz y Cano describes these businesses, pre-earthquake, as having studied supporting data about potential risks and assessing the probability through analysis and experience. Post-disaster, the businesses that re-opened and found success did so because they had the critical action protocols already in place, from employee familiarity with evacuation plans to holding the level of insurance necessary to rebuild. Foundational preparedness for “high-consequence, low-probability” events set them apart from businesses that didn’t reopen after the earthquake.
2 Embrace trial runs
To respond to a big-threat business continuity crisis,
organizations need to put their plan through trial runs.
As Mucharraz y Cano says, “Organizations’ emergency
responses are activated by emergent leaders during
crises, and they are tested during minor crises.”
To test the effectiveness of business continuity plans, organizations should:
- Take note of emergent leaders: In smaller-scale crises or in test runs, natural leaders often emerge from the disruption. They may not have the title or official capacity to act, but if they set themselves apart as especially helpful, knowledgeable and respected as a leader, they should be recognized as part of future planning.
- Fine-tune the plan: Use the business continuity plan for low-level crises in order to test for weaknesses.
- Create a culture of empowerment: Encourage individuals to challenge weak points of the plan and propose optimizations.
- Keep the plan updated: Employees onboard and offboard, passwords and authentications change, and crises come and go. It’s important to have a workflow in place that sets up continual update reminders.
- Make a succession plan: In case critical employees aren’t able to participate in the business continuity crisis response, have a plan for who backfills their positions.
For leaders, a disruption in business continuity shouldn’t elicit panic. Concern, yes, but not panic. With a well-designed and well-tested business continuity plan in place, the crisis may indeed allow an organization to stand out where others stumble. In many ways, adversity presents an opportunity for the softer skills of an organization to shine: empathy, organizational resilience, employee empowerment and genuinely good leadership.
3 Empathy: Lead with humanity
In times of crisis, businesses should lead from a place of
mutual connection, in which people come first and their
stress, grief and concerns are addressed sensitively and
Empathy, the ability to vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts and experiences of others, is an increasingly hot commodity in business circles. In Businessolver’s 2019 State of workplace empathy report, the trait is called a foundational value in the workplace, and 82 percent of employees say they would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization. If employees feel that strongly about the importance of empathy, imagine the reaction of customers receiving a tone-deaf, self-centered communication from a service provider – or worse, silence.
When responding to a business continuity crisis, one of the first actions will be to communicate the situation with customers. Infuse this message with empathy by:
- Acknowledging customers’ pain: Lead communications with acknowledgement of the pain the crisis has inflicted. If the extent of the crisis isn’t fully developed, say that, and make it clear that customers’ experiences will continue to be the driving force of action and response as the situation unfolds.
- Providing help: In times of crisis, customers don’t need lengthy, feel-good sentiments that aren’t accompanied by action. They have enough to deal with without searching communications for useful information and finding none. Deliver concise messaging that is heartfelt but helpful.
- Being honest: Most business leaders have heard the guidance to “under-promise and over-deliver.” It’s never more applicable than in times of crisis. Acknowledge if the future is still murky, but commit to solving challenges and keeping customers apprised as updates are available.
- Starting a dialog: Empathy is so much more than saying the right thing. Invite conversation and make it simple for customers to reach you if it’s possible during the crisis.
- Taking responsibility: The multitude of potential business continuity threats are endless, from acute tech disruptions to total physical destruction of a facility from a natural disaster. Sometimes it’s the fault of a business, and sometimes it’s out of anyone’s hands. If, unfortunately, the disruption or crisis is the fault of a business, it needs to accept responsibility quickly, fully and without excuse. Customers, partners and communities deserve the respect of hearing the truth.
- Following through: Organizations leading customers through a crisis can’t drop in and out; empathy and decency mandate they communicate through to the resolution. Once the crisis is managed or solved, notify customers. When an action for addressing the crisis has been decided upon, notify all parties, from customers and partners to employees and local officials, as scope of the crisis requires.
Great organizations foster a culture of transparency and trust with their customers. Threats to business continuity can put that standard to the test, but by communicating with empathy, organizations can fortify the positive relationships they’ve already established and get back to business sooner.
4 Timeliness: Communicate ASAP
The minute an organization realizes there’s a threat
to business continuity, it should be communicated to
stakeholders. However, in large, multi-layer organizations,
communicating in a timely manner can be a challenge.
When developing the crisis communication plan, provide protocols for:
- Social media: If business continuity has been impacted by a crisis, the news is likely to matriculate to social media. A bit of a double-edged sword, social media can be both a tool and a threat. Used as a tool, teams can helpfully respond to queries and concerns from customers. However, social media can become a threat if ramifications from the crisis – or poor internal handling of it – go viral and leave an unfavorable impression. Although a bit uncontrollable, social media can’t be ignored, especially during a crisis.
- Status web page: Have a team in place to create a status web page, where customers can check for updates whenever they want. This page needs to be updated regularly and accurately, as well as timestamped.
- Pre-scripted messages: Although challenging to predict what types of crises could arise, having a collection of pre-scripted initial communication pieces is a good strategy. These can be reviewed in advance by necessary stakeholders when times are calm, and be deployed quickly and with fewer changes when time is of the essence.
- The chain of approval: Business continuity plans must include a crisis communications chain of approval, so messages can be quickly drafted, approved and sent out as quickly as possible.
- Resource allocation: Have a plan in place to reallocate available resources to better respond to customers. Times of crisis may necessitate an off-site or expanded call center to manage increased incoming inquiries, access to a disaster recovery data solution or more representatives responding to questions and concerns on social media platforms. Ensure those who will be asked to step up are aware of that expectation and have access to the information and credentials they will need should a crisis arise.
By communicating quickly and clearly during a business continuity crisis, savvy organizations moderate the situation by delivering integrated, consistent information to their customers. Stability behind the crisis allows for an accelerated recovery and sets a tone for ongoing trust and competency.
5 Threat levels: Evaluate the disruption
Is this crisis a mountain or a mole hill? Business continuity
crisis plans can’t be one-size-fits-all, because the infinite
number of business continuity threats – wildfires, floods,
active shooters, data breaches, cyberattacks, pandemics,
supply chain disruptions, employee shortages – require
vastly different responses. From acute tech problems that
can be resolved in hours and impact a handful of teams
or customers to Covid-19-level pandemics that literally
change the way the world operates, each requires a
What constitutes a crisis, who is impacted, how long it lasts and what the long-term effects are vary, so the business continuity plan and response options must, too. Regardless of the size of the crisis, communication must be timely and empathetic, as noted above.
When initiating communications with impacted stakeholders, consider these response escalation approaches, as well as whether to use them together or unilaterally:
- Personal, private contact
- Social media posts
- Mass communication by email or SMS
- Mass communication by phone
- Press release and news media
Organizations should also evaluate which audiences to
address. Threats to business continuity range in size and
reach, so each audience and the communication going to
them needs to be considered and customized. For large-scale
crises that involve public health, communication
beyond customers and employees may be necessary. If
a technology disruption causes an outage of just one
product, communication need only go to those product
owners. When Covid-19 changed the world, on the other
hand, it required extensive, ongoing communication from
most enterprises regarding worker and customer health,
logistics and operations, and more.
Leaders with big plans and big responsibilities can’t afford to stumble in a crisis. When a business continuity incident arises, every minute it takes to create and issue a response can impact the organization for the next decade. With a plan in place, the crisis response can be infused with the character of the organization, and leaders can confidently depend on the skills and competence of their team to rise to the occasion of excellent service.
Thriving organizations are built by leaders and teams primed to advance a vision for success. Don’t let a business continuity disruption blur that vision.