Hurricanes. Hostile Mergers. Data breaches. A misconstrued comment on social media. These are a few of the real and figurative storms that companies weather regularly with the help of internal and external staff, and regular advice from their general counsel (GC).
The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) recently convened its General Counsel Steering Committee. Crisis communications counsel James Barron, a managing director of the New York office of Sard Verbinnen & Co. (SVC), a specialist financial and crisis communications firm, led a discussion of more than 30 GCs from top companies in a discussion on topics that keep them awake at night, including cyberattacks, scandals, and the delicate art of communicating to stakeholders when a crisis occurs.
Barron emphasized that often times the GC plays “the role of the company quarterback,” having witnessed this many times during his tenure at SVC. Directors often turn to their GCs to understand the roles they should play during a crisis, being cautious not to open themselves to future liability. General counsel can also be instrumental in ensuring that leadership proactively creates a response plan and then follows that plan should a crisis arise.
Concepts to include in the GC’s crisis playbook follow:*
1. Create a crisis response plan that is usable. No one has time to read dense policies in a crisis. “While there are some crises that can be anticipated and materials can be prepared in advance, I don’t believe in crisis plan books that are six inches thick,” Barron said. He pointed out that companies should take the time to identify and drill on the most likely crises, then use the lessons learned to refine crisis response processes and assign senior executives and board members to appropriate tasks.
2. Drill the plan. No company can prepare for every scenario that will emerge in a crisis, Barron noted that tabletop exercises can help GCs and boards identify their blind spots and fine-tune assignments of who will be responsible for what portion of the response. One Steering Committee member also pointed out that tabletop exercises surface differing opinions about how to handle a crisis. Consider, for instance, that the GC and the director of public relations often times have very different opinions regarding messaging and speed of outreach. Hashing out disagreements before an event occurs will encourage the GC, executives, and directors to present a united front when a crisis occurs.
3. GCs are Quarterbacks. Barron said GCs often play the role of organizing the team and breaking down silos. “GCs find themselves corralling multiple groups, including senior management, the Board, operational management and communications functions. In addition, they have responsibility for outside counsel and often specialist PR firms such as Sard Verbinnen,” he said. “Their role is often to balance competing needs, particularly where there is a tension between the business needs and legal requirements.”
4. Identifying the need for public communication. Barron reminded the members of the Steering Committee that during times of peace at the company, they should consider mapping out which scenarios will need to be communicated publicly and which shouldn’t, what regulatory and legal ramifications exist for disclosing and not disclosing certain matters, and communicate the plan to the board and senior executives accordingly.
5. Understand who must be included in a crisis response plan. One Steering Committee member brought to the group’s attention that sometimes regulations demand that the CEO is involved in response to a crisis. Still another mentioned that the board at his company could not be involved in crisis response because they could not move at the speed that their senior management team could respond.
6. Seek outside counsel when a key player acts out of step with the plan. Barron pointed out that even with a plan in place, sometimes a key executive speaks out of order during a crisis, causing tension and discord between the board, and other executives. In this case, Barron notes that it’s “sometimes easier for an external legal advisor or communications group to ensure that the right decisions are made.”
7. Update your corporate contacts regularly. Several participants pointed out that having the right phone numbers for the right people is essential when management, the board, and GCs have only minutes to respond to a crisis. While this seems like a fairly simple task, Steering Committee members pointed out that having a list of who needs to be contacted immediately should exist in the crisis-response playbook—including every possible phone number or other contact needed to reach that person. Contacts should also be kept fresh for essential regulators, outside counsel, and other stakeholders who may need to be contacted.
8. Plan for the long-haul. One GC pointed out that some crises require weeks and even months of attention from top-level executives and the board. In addition to planning for immediate response, Steering Committee members agreed that a chain of assistance should be built to support the work done by responding executives and GCs. Not doing so could create undue risk within the organization caused by neglected leadership.
NACD’s General Counsel Steering Committee brings together progressive general counsel from leading companies to engage in frank, informal discussions with each other and with NACD leaders about corporate governance practices and the changing business and regulatory environment. These conversations help inform the development of NACD resources, education programs, and events with a goal of strengthening the partnership between the general counsel and the board. NACD thanks the Steering Committee for its participation, and for strengthening and supporting the work of corporate directors across the country.
*All General Counsel Steering Committee meetings are held under Chatham House Rule. The names of GCs and companies are removed accordingly.