Power outages. Natural disasters. A death in the company. Data breaches compromising sensitive information. An unprecedented pandemic.
No matter how they hit, crises always surprise the companies they hobble. Some are easier to prepare for and accommodate in the short term, especially if there’s a worst-case blueprint to follow—like procedures for working from home, or an established succession plan if a key player in the company suddenly passes away.
Dominick Carmagnola, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA), says there are so many different crises that can—and do—befall businesses that NJSBA offers a variety of preparedness guides addressing myriad scenarios. But they all share a common purpose.
“They allow people to have a source that helps them figure out what issues they need to deal with and how they can deal with them,” he says.
As COVID has illustrated, emergencies of all kinds, as well as their ongoing ripple effects, can catch everything from a nascent start-up to an established Fortune 500 company flat-footed, even if they made it through the initial onset of a crisis seemingly unscathed.
Cautionary Tales and Lessons Learned
While there’s no way to predict how, when or to what extent a catastrophe will strike, an emergency playbook can help cooler heads prevail in dire times. It can also force your company to consider catastrophic scenarios in a proactive way, empowering them to proceed confidentially into an unclear future. And even if it goes unused for years, it’s always better to have a backup plan and not need it than to need it and not have one.
It’s a lesson the Alloy Silverstein team at the accounting firm’s Cherry Hill office learned nearly a decade ago. Chris Cicalese, Alloy Silverstein’s associate partner and director of cloud services, explains how Hurricane Sandy’s devastation underscored deficiencies in their emergency backup plans.
“You don’t think that kind of thing is going to happen to you because you don’t think those kinds of storms will reach us, but we were without power for about a week and our office was not set up to be remote then,” he recalls. “We had to get a generator for the whole building that cost almost $20,000 a day to run.”
The frustrating fiasco jolted the company into action so it could prepare for all manner of emergencies, and is a big reason why its team smoothly transitioned to remote work as soon as COVID mandates shuttered non-essential workplaces.
It’s also why Alloy Silverstein was able to act as a business advisor throughout the pandemic, sharing work-arounds with and offering guidance to clients that came directly from the team’s experiences.
“Our clients can use us to whatever capacity they want to because we have that experience from doing our own emergency planning,” Cicalese says. “We reached out to our clients to say, ‘Hey if you need help, let us know. Our team has gone through this.’ We’ve been advising clients specifically on how to be more mobile, how to work from anywhere, and how to really plan for the worst.”
The turmoil taught the Cherry Hill firm what so many other companies have learned by clawing their way back from disaster. As John D’Agostino Jr., past president of Professional Insurance Agents of New Jersey, notes, it sometimes takes living through an emergency to learn from it.
“Good crisis management is trying to invent scenarios that make you say ‘What else could possibly go wrong?’ and then figuring out as many safety nets as you can put in place to get the job done when Murphy’s Law strikes—otherwise, you’re the company finding out exactly what can go wrong after you’ve experienced it,” he says.
“The basics of a good plan are redundancy, mobility and worst-case scenario planning,” Cicalese explains.
Some key company players are loathe to confront their mortality by establishing a succession plan; some believe the storm of the century won’t hit their offices; some think their business is too small for hackers to target. Others simply put it off until it’s too late.
It can seem like a daunting task to either bring outdated emergency plans into the present or build multifaceted backup procedures from the ground up. Fortunately, your team is one of your strongest assets when it comes to examining a company from all angles. Assembling an emergency-preparedness team not only draws on numerous parties’ strengths and areas of expertise but also means that a group can break down one seemingly overwhelming task into something more manageable.
“Creating and then disseminating an emergency plan is almost always a collective decision,” Carmagnola says. “There’s that brain trust in charge of the decision-making, but then there are designated folks who are going to deal with specific issues. You need to know who your team’s going to be, who the critical components of that group are going to be, who’s going to be in charge of communication.”
With COVID, for example, countless companies that went remote had to trust their teams’ at-home equipment is as secure as their on-site counterparts. During that widespread shift to remote work, IT staff emerged as some of the most important members of a team. Their input would be crucial in designing a work-from-home plan, as well as establishing guidelines that ensure sensitive information usually contained to office devices will remain safe.
Or, if a key member of the team passes away or can no longer perform their duties, a succession plan facilitates a smoother transition of leadership, while extra precautions can ensure that qualified individuals remain at the helm.
“Say you have two partners who get along great and work well together, but then one passes away and the surviving partner has to deal with their spouse, who just inherited half of the business and has no idea what they’re doing,” D’Agostino says. “A buy/sell agreement life insurance plan allows the surviving partner to hand the spouse a check to buy out their shares of the business.”
In the instance of a fire, active shooter, compromised structural integrity of the office itself or any other scenario necessitating a plan for quickly exiting the building with no clear timeline of return, things like easily grabbed go-bags filled with pertinent company information or cloud storage also can prove invaluable for continuing operations in the aftermath.
“After Hurricane Sandy, anyone who had their backups on their computer systems found that ultimately didn’t prove helpful because they got washed away, too,” Carmagnola says. “A lot of folks learned that they should have a backup offsite or in the cloud.”
But while having a backup plan is important, putting all your eggs in one basket is still a risky approach to crisis management. “Forget about Plan B: You also want to have a Plan C—and probably even a Plan D—to refer to, just in case,” says D’Agostino.
Putting Your Plan to the Test
Experts unilaterally advise that once you have multifaceted, modern backup plans in place, it’s crucial to not let them languish into irrelevancy. Make sure your data is backed up completely and often, and is safely accessible from remote devices ranging from an employee’s hotspot-equipped phone to a library terminal. Those backups should be proactively monitored to ensure they’re actually backing up everything you want them to, and should be tested at regular intervals.
“Some people say you should never give your team a heads up about a drill because of course they’re going to do everything right, but I’ve never agreed with that,” D’Agostino says. “If you call your office and say ‘Get out now, there’s a gunman in the building,’ what happens when one of your employees has a heart attack or breaks a leg in the rush? I don’t care if they’re slow-walking out of the building for a drill, what matters is they’re doing a walk-through of a plan that needs to work when it counts.”
In the end, though, none of the preparation, redundancy and pressure tests matter if there’s no outline for triggering those plans or way to communicate their procedures.
“A big part of these response plans is being able to communicate, so you need to have a literal communication plan,” says Carmagnola. “How are you going to talk to your team in the event of an emergency?”
An Evolving Plan Is an Effective Plan
If your contingency plans haven’t been updated in a while or you’re only revisiting what pertains to the most recent crisis you’ve faced, you could be leaving yourself, your employees, your clients and anyone on the periphery of your network vulnerable to increasingly shrewd digital attacks. Hackers and their malware aren’t just targeting the biggest players in your industry: Maliciously savvy ones are always zeroing in on smaller businesses for the easy prey.
Even beyond technology’s constant changes, a stagnant document is an outdated document. It’s important to revisit the contents of your emergency plans even just to verify all contacts are current employees, your evacuation plan corresponds to your current building and all procedures are up-to-date.
“Understand that your plan is a work in progress,” Carmagnola says. “You can add to it, you can change things, you might take something out of it that’s no longer relevant. It’s a document that you’re constantly updating.”
But if you’re really in the tall grass when it comes to crafting your crisis-management plans, there are always experts who can help, as well as seminars and other educational resources providing guidance from those who have survived the same disaster that will, in time, impact your business.
“No one thinks that worst-case scenario is going to happen to them, but it is definitely going to happen to someone,” says Cicalese.
Preparing for the Worst
Need some help with your crisis planning? The New Jersey State Bar Association has a general Disaster Preparedness Guide that includes a planning checklist to ensure you have the essentials covered, whether you’re starting from scratch or updating an existing plan.
Name and contact information of person in charge
Name and contact information of alternate person in charge
Name of person in charge of evacuation
Meeting location/assembly area (attach visual or written instructions for evacuation)
Known Persons in Need of Special Assistance
Name of person, location, type of assistance required
Alternate Work Location
New location or work from home
Vendor/service provider and contact information
Client and contact information
List the location and backup for the following:
Stocks and bonds
Bank account information
Virtual backup and access
Lists of passwords
Policy type, number, agent and contact information
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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 11, Issue 10 (October 2021).
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