How to handle a cyber crisis

Canadian banks are looked up to – both here and abroad – as among the savviest in the world. However, at least one of them didn’t know how to publicly manage a cyber crisis, according to expert Allan Bonner.

Head of a Toronto-based crisis management consulting firm, Bonner was brought in some time ago to help an unnamed financial institution because the press wasn’t buying the company spokesperson’s answer to repeated questions on what had gone wrong.

Allan Bonner

The bank would only say something along the line of, ‘We are dedicated to customer satisfaction. In order to improve our customer relationship we regularly improve our computer operations,’ Bonner recalled in an interview.

He sat with a vice-president trying to get the real answer on this for several hours who said he was told by his staff the same thing. Finally, Bonner told the exec, “You should have the authority to find out what happened. Get one of your IT people on the line and ask.” However, IT repeated the same explanation.

Finally, one of Bonner’s researchers spoke to the IT leader and got the full answer: A technician tweaked a computer program, but a few hours later another person thought the change was wrong, reversed the tweak and – as Bonner puts it — “the computer’s head exploded” because there were two adjustments so close together.

The lesson: “In a crisis – cyber or not – the people reporting to you will keep you in the dark, as opposed to coming clean if there’s going to be some pain,” Bonner said.

Hard for the C-suite to believe, but some – maybe all — people in the organization think the less management knows the better. And they think –sometimes on the advice of consultants — the less the company says during a crisis the better.

Not so, Bonner believes.

First, “a mission vision statement (‘We try to serve customers well’) isn’t why you have a crisis,” he said, so repeating it isn’t convincing.

As for being afraid of saying something that might admit liability, Bonner says a carefully-worded statement will avoid that: “We’re sorry this happened, We’re trying to get to the bottom of it.”

Instead, some companies think total denial is a valid response. He recalled making a presentation on the necessity of clear communications to an Alberta firm. At one point a lawyer said he told a customer whose plant had burned down to say nothing publicly about the incident. But how, Bonner wondered, could the loss be hidden? Employees would know. Customers would know. Suppliers would know.

Just as important, if the crisis is a cyber breach criminals could quickly exploit personal information. Customers need to be warned fast, if only to avoid costly class action lawsuits.

It’s “silly advice” to say nothing publicly, he said. On the other hand, an organization shouldn’t be too communicative. And most importantly, it shouldn’t lay blame.

So yes, chose your words carefully. “Crisis management is game of inches,” Bonner likes to say.

A former CBC broadcaster, Bonner moved into media training for management in 1988 and then crisis management. More recently he’s been looking into how unprepared organizations are to face a crisis, cyber or other.He the author of An Ounce of Prevention (2010) a book on how to navigate through damage control and crisis response.

His next book, which will hopefully be published later this year, is on how cities should plan for emergencies stemming from cyber security incidents. “It is absolutely shocking what is both in and omitted” from many municipal emergency plans, he said, including how to deal with cyber-related incidents (everything from a deliberate attack to solar flares knocking out electric systems).

Biggest mistakes

The biggest mistake management makes in a crisis is “hoping nobody’s going to find out,” Bonner said. However “studies are clear: those who take fast action” fare better.

When a crisis breaks don’t wait to react: Start assembling the data, people and resources you need immediately. If you find you don’t need them nine hours later, he said, no harm has been done.

The second biggest mistake is issuing overly optimistic reports to the public: ‘We’ll have this will be fixed in two days,’ or ‘We know the problem.’

The third mistake is focusing on the immediate problems of the crisis and forgetting the organization will have to deal with ongoing effects such as publicity, legislation, regulation, inquiries and court cases.

Allan Bonner’s 12 principles of crisis management:

1. In all cases, the first order of business is to determine the facts: What is the cause of the crisis and what will be the public perceptions? Many events are surrogates for other issues. Most events morph and have new meanings over a short period of time.

2. How will the issue be framed?

3. Who will frame the issue — regulators, legislators, customers, shareholders, other stakeholders.?

4. What will this morph into in the days or weeks ahead? One may handle the event well, but not the inquiry or testimony at legislatures or eventual court cases.

5. Inquiries go up and back. This means as high up the chain of command as possible and as far back as possible.

6. One must act fast but be sure of actions and information.

7. One must apologize but not admit liability.

8. If liability is completely obvious one will look foolish talking around it.

9. Don’t blame anybody for anything.

10. Don’t try to sell product or enhance reputation from the incident.

11. The court case may go on for years, long after the event is forgotten.

12. Your staff may keep details from you to avoid confrontation or recrimination.

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

Related Tech News

Tech Jobs

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.

Tech Companies Hiring Right Now