The most frequently overlooked part of any disaster recovery (DR) plan is communications. Even companies that are diligent in regularly testing the operations and procedures of these plans can neglect the basics of communication and messaging should a disaster occur, like having answers to questions like: Who updates personnel within the company on the DR progress? Who keeps senior management apprised? And, most importantly, who is the mouthpiece out to the general public, the board, and the stakeholders?
Several years ago, a severe storm hit a west coast community and knocked out power for several days. At a local bank, the data center was damaged and computer systems were down. A teller at one of the bank's branches was out in the community and a customer asked her when the system would be up. The teller replied that she didn't know—and that because the system was down and there were no estimates when it would be back up, she seriously doubted whether anyone at all could gain access to their money.
What the teller didn't know was that DR contingencies were already being enacted throughout the bank's branches, with staff running a set of manual procedures that enabled the bank to remain open for business, even with computer unavailability. Unfortunately, the teller's faulty assessment leaked to the community and found itself in the local newspaper the next day. As a result, the bank received hundreds of calls from frantic customers—and sustained lasting damage to its brand that had to be surmounted long after the disaster had ended.
In the bank's post disaster review, key managers acknowledged that there were holes in the DR plan's communications strategy—and that if these holes had been plugged, errant information wouldn't have gotten out into the community at large.
So what can you as a manager do to ensure that the communications side of the disaster recovery plan is as solid as your failover operations?
1. Advise staff not to discuss the disaster until they're given the green light
Word of mouth is dangerous. Caution your staff not to discuss details of the disaster publicly—not even with their families—unless it is absolutely necessary. Rather, they should refer questioners to the appropriate corporate spokesperson. It's also a good idea to make sure that the corporate PR plan also includes the training of the line personnel in the call center, sales, service, and other customer-facing areas. These individuals certainly will be asked questions by customers and others.
2. Identify a spokesperson for your group
If you're the manager, this will likely be you. Also, understand your own staff is going to be panicky. That means they're likely to make blunders or mistakes under the pressures of a disaster. This is why it is important to have an airtight DR communications plan with specific spokesperson responsibilities.
3. Select an external mouthpiece
If you are a corporate PR or marketing manager, you might be chosen to take the lead as the external mouthpiece of the plan to the public and to stakeholders during a disastrous circumstance. In this role, you should work hand in hand with the CEO and with executive management to keep your outside stakeholders and customers updated on DR progress. Just knowing that a DR effort is underway can go a long way to calm fears.
4. Include communications and well as operations in DR testing and reviews
A ladder of communications for DR should be established corporate-wide. It should be followed without exception. This ladder of communications describes who should communicate to whom and in what order. In the case of the bank example, a properly trained employee would know that it was her supervisor's (or her supervisor's manager's ) job to communicate to anyone outside the department concerning a disaster.
In the end, the situation is not only that you are in a disaster and have to recover from it. It is equally important to reassure those who have placed their trust in you and your company that steps are being taken to correct the immediate situation. If you are a line or a departmental manager, it is also important to keep the correct DR communications protocol in mind at all times—and to continually reinforce it with your staff.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.