Last week, I was onsite with a client testing a disaster recovery (DR) plan. This was one of the most creative DR tests I have ever conducted because the client actually had users act out the exercise. Every five minutes users entered the IT “war room” to complain about offline systems and continuously asked when service would be restored. The acting emulated real life and was effective, serving as a reminder to IT workers in charge of recovering systems that they must deal with users as well as servers and networks.

In our debriefing after the test, we talked about communicating with users and key stakeholders and determined that there were communication holes in the DR plan, which needed to be beefed up in several ways.

SEE: Disaster recovery and business continuity plan (Tech Pro Research)

First, IT personnel who receive user calls need to have the proper training to manage these calls. User-facing individuals need to demonstrate patience with end users and also empathy with users’ frustrations. They also need to keep users apprised of the system’s status, which could help eliminate user anxiety.

Further, systems need to be prepped to notify users of status, assuming systems are operational enough to issue messages.

In the technical portion of the DR plan, we discovered that procedures for recovering systems must be spelled out in greater detail. In many cases, instructions were scant and assumed deep system knowledge–an assumption that shouldn’t be made.

Finally, we learned that communicating only to users and management was not good enough. What about the inquiries of customers, board members, stockholders, or the press?

“I didn’t realize how many areas of communication had to be included in the DR plan,” said the company’s COO.

SEE: Shelter in place emergency policy (Tech Pro Research)

Communication must-haves

So, what communications fundamentals should be part of every DR plan? Here are four of them:

1. For every system recovery procedure in the plan include a final instruction for IT to notify users when the system is back up.

There is an assumption that users should just “know” when the system is back up. A better way is to notify users directly when systems are back up. This lets them know that you haven’t forgotten about them and their frustrations. It will also save a few system status calls to the help desk.

2. Train your user-facing personnel how to handle user phone calls and visits so they can diffuse frustration.

Anxiety levels are high throughout the company when systems go offline. The more supportive and understanding your user-facing IT personnel are with end users, the calmer end users will feel until systems are restored.

3. Defer communications to the communities outside of your company to marketing or PR.

Marketing and PR personnel have special training in messaging and relating to the public. IT and operations employees don’t. For this reason, marketing and PR should play an integral role in messaging and communications to the outside during any disaster recovery, and it should be written into the DR plan.

Once when I was a bank CIO, we had a teller at one of our branches tell a customer that the data center was totally destroyed by an earthquake. True, our systems were offline, but the physical data center was intact and standing. The story got out to the local paper, and we spent several days diffusing the story so that we could dissuade customers from closing their accounts.

SEE: Disaster recovery: Tech tips and leadership advice (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

4. Practice, practice, practice

Practice the communications portion of the corporate DR and business continuity plan at least annually, and preferably semi-annually. In these exercises, all of the designated spokespersons for the disaster and business continuity effort should be given a simulated disaster script, and are then asked to communicate with each other and to the outside as if a disaster was actually occurring.

The benefit of conducting a dry run of the communications portion of the DR and business continuity plan is that the team can see where the communication breakdowns are likely to occur–and can revise the DR communications plan accordingly.