Cybersecurity Awareness Blog

Internal Communication during a Cyber Crisis: Five Tips

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

While prevention is better than cure when it comes to cyberattacks, we are witnessing an increasing number of cyberattacks that unfortunately hit their targets. According to research conducted by security company Malwarebytes, the number of cyberattacks reached a record high in 2019. In the first quarter alone, there was a 235 percent increase compared to 2018, with over 9.5 million cyberattacks. Preventing cyberattacks is not an easy task. This was evident from the successful cyberattacks on Dutch educational institutions and medical centers in late 2019 and early 2020. When a cyberattack manages to breach all prevention efforts, it is crucial to inform personnel with the right information. But how should you handle internal communication during a cyber crisis?

In late 2018, SURFnet, an ICT collaboration organization of Dutch educational and research institutions, conducted a cyber exercise that simulated attacks on fifty institutions. The participating institutions included (higher) education, healthcare, and research organizations. After the exercise, they all evaluated their response during the cyber attack. The conclusion was that challenging communication was the biggest hurdle for most institutions during the cyber crisis. However, with the right approach, effective internal communication can prevent a cyber crisis from escalating further.

1. Improve knowledge transfer

During a crisis, communication can be challenging due to a difference in language and terminology between the operational level and the rest of the organization. However, it is especially important during a crisis that decision-makers (such as a crisis team) have a complete and accurate understanding of the situation and its possibilities and limitations. People responsible for both internal and external communication also need to be well-informed about the situation. Only then can they ensure effective and efficient communication.

Communication difficulties resulting from differences in knowledge and language can be avoided. While not all employees need to know every detail, it is crucial for operational-level employees to transfer their knowledge to colleagues at the strategic and tactical levels. This way, communication can happen without any misinterpretations in the event of a crisis. Train employees in basic cybersecurity knowledge so that everyone has an understanding of the situation when communicating about the state of affairs during a cyber crisis.

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2. Communicate about decisions

During the SURFnet cyber exercise, many institutions often neglected to communicate the decisions that were made. This was a significant learning point because employees found insight into the considerations and reasons behind certain decisions essential. With such insight, they would know what was happening, why decisions were made, and why certain actions still needed to be taken.

When the reasons behind decisions are unclear, employees find it difficult to understand or support (less obvious) decisions. However, to navigate through a crisis, employee support and engagement are crucial. Provide employees with the tools to support the organization and maintain trust in decision-makers. By involving employees in the rationale behind decisions, they will have a stronger set of arguments for external communication, better answers to outsiders’ questions, and they will be more inclined to stand behind the organization. Transparency about decisions is therefore crucial during times of crisis.

3. Prioritize employees

During a cyber crisis, organizations are focused on both internal and external communication. However, it is essential to ensure that employees are the first to be informed, so they do not read about developments in the media. Firstly, employees need to be familiar with the correct information to know how to act. In the case of a cyber attack, a single human error can worsen the spread of malware or lead to data breaches. Secondly, if employees receive updates from external sources, it can damage trust in the organization. This could limit their willingness to support the organization during a crisis.

It is important for employees to know where to find the latest, accurate information during a crisis. Whether it’s through manager briefings, push notifications on their smartphones, or digital signage screens, employees should know where to find the only reliable information. Consider connecting real-time external media to narrowcasting screens to keep employees informed about any differences between external media and internal, correct information.

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4. Establish alternative communication systems

During the SURFnet cyber exercise, many (educational) institutions lacked an alternative communication system apart from email and intranet. When email and intranet systems were down during the cyber crisis, communication had to resort to public social media platforms. This is not an ideal solution since the whole world can immediately observe the communication.

To reach students and employees, an employee app can be utilized as an alternative communication system. This application can display push notifications on smartphones and tablets, ensuring that everyone receives updates instantly. Only the people who need to be reached will be informed, rather than the entire world.

5. Communicate quickly

During a cyber crisis, developments can happen so rapidly that it becomes difficult to keep all parties adequately informed. The situation during a cyber crisis can be chaotic due to confusion or a lack of information. There will likely be an information vacuum, making it challenging to provide clear information immediately. However, there will also be pressure to answer a tremendous number of different questions. Therefore, it is important to start by establishing the facts. Based on that, share a statement with your employees outlining what is known. Also, inform them when they can expect a new update (and where they can find it!).

Restore calm within the organization and manage expectations regarding when and how information will be communicated to employees. This way, employees will know that only the information communicated at specified intervals is accurate. Send out brief messages whenever there is an available update and potentially connect SharePoint to narrowcasting screens, so employees know where they can find more information if needed. Keep each other informed about what has been communicated (both internally and externally). This ensures consistent messaging and prevents chaos or confusion.

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Richard Renkens

IT-specialist Richard Renkens has been with Netpresenter for well over a decade. Besides solving IT-related mysteries, Richard likes to blow off steam on his mountain bike.