Boards in Crisis: Insider Tips to Managing Hard Times

Our panelists: Donna Petkanics, Nicki Locker, Wade Loo, Margit Wennmachers, and Tor Braham

If you’re a board member, crisis isn’t a question of if, but of when.

We’ve all followed the recent major stories of tech companies in crisis — from Uber to AirBNB, Theranos to Zenefits — hoping that something that dramatic could never happen to our company. Hopefully, your startup board will never have to deal with a highly visible crisis such as these, but chances are you will need to deal with some type of crisis.

Earlier this week we pulled together several prominent Silicon Valley experts, many with tech company board experience, for a panel about managing crisis. Below are 5 insider tips from our panelists to help prepare you for any future company crisis.

1. Forewarned is Forearmed

Your in-house communications team may not have the capacity or the experience to handle a highly public crisis. Don’t wait until you are in the midst of a crisis to search for a crisis communication or PR expert. You will want to find a firm that matches your company’s style and approach to handling crisis before you need it. Our panelists recommend having a crisis plan in place that includes one or more crisis firms that the board/company feels comfortable with as far as style. There are all types of “flavors” of crisis firms out there and, it’s best to vet them when you’re not in crisis, so when it’s time to pull the trigger, you have someone at the ready who meets your needs.

2. Protect Your Employees with a Whistleblower Program

Many crises could have been prevented before they became public if the company had listened to or responded better to their employees. Even if you are a relatively small company, it is important to put an employee whistleblower policy and program into place to both promote transparency and honesty within the company and provide protection for any employees who report on any illegal acts or ethics violations at the company.

3. Check the Legal Perspective Early

In any crisis, it’s important to have your general counsel or lawyer involved from early on in the discussions. Our panelists recommended involving the general counsel or external counsel especially during the fact gathering phase, both to keep things privileged and to provide a legal point of view.

4. Utilize your Board when in a Crisis

As CEO, it might be tempting to handle crisis on your own, but our panelists emphasized that your board can be a very important sounding board during crisis. Not only can your board provide guidance on how to respond, they can review communication before the fact as a final ‘gut check’ before it goes public.

5. Don’t Waste a Good Crisis

It’s hard to see it when you’re in the midst of a crisis, but it can provide an interesting opportunity to make a change within your company or to shift the way the public views you. One of our panelists, who has been involved in managing many different crises, reminded us not to let a crisis go to waste, because it’s a great chance to make the company better. There are many PR benefits to being covered in the media, even when the news is bad — if you manage your crisis response well, it can have a lasting impact on both current and new customers.


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