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A guide to incident planning and leadership

What does effective crisis management look like? Tony Schmitz uses a case study of a fire in a Taiwanese data center to explore this question.

As a crisis manager, you are responsible for the safety and security of both your employees and your organization. And when an emergency strikes, you are expected to carry out your business continuity plan effectively while keeping the big picture in mind. While having a simple software tool to operationalize your continuity plan is paramount to a quick and efficient response, you need human energy to back it up. For all business leaders, the ability to think and react quickly during a crisis situation can save money, energy, reputation, and lives.

Effective crisis managers know how to prepare for emergencies and how to deal with their consequences. It is only by actively considering the worst case scenarios and by preparing themselves for unexpected situations that they can effectively plan for the future. This includes integrating mass notification and automated software tools into their business continuity strategies and making, reviewing, and testing flexible response plans. Most importantly, the best crisis managers are realistic in their expectations and know exactly what to do in the first moments of a crisis.

The role of a crisis manager can be broken down into two distinct phases: planning for an emergency and reacting when faced with one. Within these two phases, there are a number of factors that you, as a crisis manager, must consider and address. Among other things, you should record and share your business continuity plan with your management team, connect with local public agencies, maintain clear goals, and be prepared to ask the right questions as an incident unfolds. Above all, you should strive to be prepared, flexible, and compassionate in all aspects of your crisis response, knowing that employees, customers, and your community are counting on your strong leadership when crises strike.

Leadership in a real emergency: fire in a Taiwanese data center

Successful leadership in a crisis depends on pragmatic planning and situation-specific performance. For this reason, it is helpful to consider your role as a crisis manager in the face of a real event, such as the sudden, widespread internet interruption recently experienced across the island of Taiwan.

Late on Monday, February 25th 2013, a Taipei data center owned by Chief Telecom Inc. and eASPNEt Taiwan Inc caught fire. Though the blaze was contained quickly, this localized event caused a major national disruption. 80 percent of Internet services across Taiwan were impacted by what the Taipei Times indicates may have been the worst interruption for Taiwanese Internet users since the 921 earthquake of 1999.

Several lessons can be learned from this event about successful crisis leadership, not the least of which is that as a crisis manager, you always need to be ready for new categories of emergency. Natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes aren’t the only events that pose a real threat to organizational continuity. In a global economy where business operations are increasingly supported by cloud-based infrastructure, a small fire at one data center was able to impact the Internet services of most of a nation of over twenty-three million.
As a crisis manager, both before and during the event, you must consider the questions this emergency raises: What is the impact for your organization of a widespread Internet outage? What preemptive measures do you need to put in place to minimize the impact of an event like this one? What should you look for in the infrastructure of emergency notification vendors? How can you ensure that your plans are effective in an outage such as this? How can you efficiently respond to this type of disruption as it occurs?

Comprehensive planning

Thinking ahead: what to consider before a crisis erupts

Planning for an emergency in your business can be extremely difficult. In order to evaluate possible responses, you must imagine the worst possible scenarios that could affect you, your employees, your supply chain, and your customers. Opening your mind to all potential crises is the best way to ensure that you are well prepared should they ever occur. Before you begin outlining possible responses to various situations, take a moment to consider the possibilities.

Consider possible disturbances that might affect the security or flow of your business. Come up with more emergency scenarios than you might initially think you need, and evaluate the possible ramifications of each one. In planning your response, ask yourself what operations within your business might need to stop or start. And for each scenario, imagine the response of all actors involved – this includes your employees, your shareholders, the media, and your community. What might each of these actors need from you during an emergency? Consider their possible confusion, lack of information, and anxiety.

In light of the Internet disruption in Taiwan, you also may want to prioritize reviewing areas of your operations that could otherwise be taken for granted. How prepared are you to circumvent a large Internet disruption? Where are your data centers? How resilient is your infrastructure? Ensuring that your IT framework and communications lines are sustainable is a key part of your role as crisis manager, and will enable you to operationalize your business continuity plans seamlessly if an event does occur?
It is also important that while planning a business continuity strategy, you establish an overarching vision of your crisis management that can be expressed in the details of your plan. By articulating your strategic goals and program objectives ahead of time, your checklists and responses will fit into a greater scheme. This will help you to stay on track when your plans need to be adjusted during a real emergency. And when you’re applying this vision, maintain realistic crisis recovery objectives: hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

Establishing your business continuity plan: what to consider

Once you have identified your organization's top priorities, you can evaluate the benefits and draw-backs of different responses to an emergency, and plan accordingly. Prepare checklists of immediate action items for each type of event, and when doing so, look to a business continuity planning software platform that will allow you to streamline and automate these responses.

Even the best management is nothing without proper communication, so consider the different ways in which you might need to contact stakeholders during a crisis. When choosing your emergency notification software, take advantage of multi-modal functionalities, and look for a robust platform that will satisfy all of your communication needs.

Identify the goals of your communication plan and distinguish between notification and mobilization. Which aspect of your plan calls for initiating action, and which calls for responses from employees?

Additionally, when choosing a notification service, you will want to make sure that your provider won’t be felled by a disturbance in one data center. When it comes to mission-critical communications, be sure you can depend on your provider to be as focused on resilience as you are.

Know who to contact in any scenario for additional help – this may include partner companies, community members, or local government organizations – and include them in your notification strategy. You will benefit from a strong relationship with public sector agencies, such as your fire or police departments, so use them as partners in building your corporate resiliency. Locate, communicate, and share information with them ahead of time so that they are prepared to help you in a crisis.

Training and testing: How to stay prepared

While you are training for an emergency, consider the possibility of an event that might impair your ability to lead. You cannot depend on one person to manage a large-scale crisis response, so be sure to train and educate multiple back-up crisis leaders. Make sure that these individuals are always kept up to date, and that they have access to both a written and digital copy of your business continuity plan. By using an automated software tool to manage your response strategy, you can ensure that vital information is kept accessible and up to date at all times.

When preparing your crisis response plans, clarify to your management that business continuity is an ongoing effort that requires a long-term commitment and continuous adjustments and development. Engage the leadership of your organization while planning and be sure to incorporate their priorities and keep them abreast of your goals.
Lastly, one of the most important aspects of your planning should be the routine testing of your response strategies. If testing reveals, for instance, that an emergency at one of your locations, such as a data center complex, or a network operations center, can bring your entire operation to a halt, you will have time to rethink your plans. That way, if a real emergency occurs, you can be ready. It is only through regular testing that you can identify the gaps in your responses and gain the confidence that you will need during a real emergency.

Leadership during an emergency

The first moments: what questions to ask

No matter how well you plan, there will always be moments during a crisis situation that you will not be prepared for. Knowing how to act and think on your feet when emergency situations erupt is a vital component of your business continuity plan.

Having a well thought-out and automated business continuity plan that is ready for use is integral to your quick response in the first moments of an incident. A critical tool in any crisis situation is information, so notify anyone that might be affected immediately, erring on the side of over-informing rather than leaving employees and customers in the dark. Keeping your prepared checklists on hand will allow you to move through your plan quickly and efficiently. And with an automated software platform that integrates your communications, incident management, and business continuity plans, you can be ready to react with just the click of a button.

However, there are still many factors that you won't be able to evaluate until the initial moments of your crisis response. Consider the location of the emergency – is it at your site? At another site? Is there a threat in your immediate vicinity? Determine how where you are and where your crisis team is will affect your response. As you learn more about the incident, be sure to ask about the details, severity, actions already taken, and the potential for a change in or escalation of the incident.

Consider what happens if your servers are hosted in the Chief Telecom data center highlighted above. Even if you are executing your business continuity plan and your secondary data center is up and running, you need to know the questions to ask, both to make sure the plan runs smoothly, and to ensure you have a complete understanding of the situation. Is failover to your second data center immediate? Has this occurred seamlessly? Are your company’s servers directly impacted by the fire, or is the outage you’re experiencing just because power has been shut down building-wide? Knowing this information will be helpful for organizing your leadership efforts during the event, as well as any necessary recovery plans in its aftermath.

Be able to differentiate between verified and unverified information, and act accordingly. It is likely that your initial information will be skewed or false in some way, so be prepared to revise your response one or two times in the initial moments of an emergency. But don't get bogged down in unnecessary details. Find a way to balance gathering this information with taking the necessary and immediate response actions as dictated by your business continuity plan.

Staying in control: how to manage a crisis

As you continue along in your crisis management, be sure to keep the vision of your business continuity plan in mind. Your primary goal should be to keep your response active, and to progress through the stages of your BCP in an orderly way. Be prepared to make decisions with partial or incomplete knowledge, but know that your information might change at any moment.

Think about the immediate aftermath of the data center fire in Taiwan. Even if your company has comprehensive recovery measures in place, you may not have all the information right away. Likely, the first information you receive would be from your internal monitoring team, informing you of a signal loss in your Taiwan data center. Even before knowing the cause of this disruption, your recovery protocols would enable you to immediately transition affected services to other globally distributed data centers.

As events unfold, keep track of information as you receive it. By writing during a crisis and logging all your actions, you will not only increase your clarity, focus, and decision making skills, but you will also have a record of your actions on hand for review after the incident is resolved.
Throughout your response, your goal should be to minimize immediate danger while delegating tasks to your team. As a crisis manager, your role is to lead, and you will be unable to do this successfully when tied down by smaller tasks. By taking on an active leadership role, you should do your utmost to demonstrate compassion to your employees, your clients, and your community. It is during times of crisis that they will look to you the most for critical information and the means to ensure their safety and security.

Author: Tony Schmitz is president and CEO of Send Word Now. He has been an entrepreneur and business executive since 1983, creating and building value for technology companies across the New York region. He has been a founder and principal of three technology companies that have been acquired by publicly traded companies.

•Date: 19th April 2013 • US/World •Type: Article • Topic: Crisis management

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