Sharing corporate pandemic preparedness plans: End the secrecy--or risk the consequences

(CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing) – Business is all about competition. It's about building a better mousetrap and marketing that mousetrap more creatively and effectively than your competitor. But it is also about dependency on other businesses to ensure that you can make, sell, and service that mousetrap. For virtually every "upstream" supply chain product, service, or utility that your company needs to be successful, you depend on someone else's successful business operation. And if you are a business-to-business company, you depend on other successful companies to be your customers.

This is the backdrop for considering what your company is doing in regard to pandemic-related preparedness and continuity planning.

Pandemic preparedness for your company can be only as good as the experience, knowledge, and wisdom of your coworkers. Better still would be to have the collective expertise of all the companies in the world—if each were willing to share. Your suppliers and customers should have a particular interest in your successful business execution during a pandemic, just as you should have a keen interest in their success.

We're not talking rocket science here. This is common sense. Yet today, the critical interdependency between companies as they each plan for the next pandemic seems like an alien concept. Simply put, almost all companies that we are aware of—including many Fortune 500 and many, many small- to medium-sized companies—are gripping their pandemic preparedness plans close to the vest. We see frightfully little private or public sharing of creative approaches or experiences wrestling with tough preparedness issues. No one has assembled a comprehensive collection of plans from companies—not trade associations, other business groups, nor the federal government.

Yes, such groups have hosted numerous meetings and assembled working groups to address the business aspects of pandemic preparedness. But these events always approach planning issues at the 30,000-ft level. We do know of some planners who, behind the scenes, have shared plans with close and trusted colleagues in other companies for comparison purposes—but almost always with the caveat, "It's for your eyes only."

To date, I am aware of only one private company in the United States—Alex Lee, a regional food wholesaler and retailer—that has put its detailed plan on the Web. This plan has been refined several times over the past 2 years. We cited Alex Lee in a past issue of the CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing as serving as a national model. Some companies have shared bits and pieces of their efforts, such as their plans for the use of antivirals. Others have provided public presentations outlining their plans and the planning process. But, again, no one is distributing written plans for study and feedback.

Ironically, over the past 2 years, some companies have required suppliers to either certify or at least acknowledge that they have plans in place to address business continuity during a pandemic. Most of these certifications are worthless, because no supplier is going to say, "No, we're not ready." And to my knowledge no company has actually audited suppliers to see if the certification and plans match up, largely because they don't want to have to disclose their own plans.

Why and how to share

Detailed preparedness plans can be made public without jeopardizing company proprietary information. Just look at the Alex Lee plan. Frankly, I'm afraid the top reason most companies don't want to share a plan with others is that they really don't have a plan. No responsible company can hide behind this excuse.

This unwillingness to widely share plans comes despite an emphasis on this very practice in the federal government's business pandemic influenza planning checklist. In section 1.6, titled, "Coordinate with external organizations and help your community," three of the four checklist items urge businesses to share their plans with other businesses, healthcare organizations, local chambers of commerce, and even the community.

So why the secrecy? It can be summarized in four words: legal counsel and public relations. We continually hear from business continuity and pandemic preparedness officials that:

  • "Our lawyers say we can't share, because to do so might expose us to increased legal liability."
  • "Our public relations folks make it clear that unless we have PR-positive news, we should not put something in the public domain that might draw attention to our possible problems during a pandemic."

While I realize both groups of professionals are doing their jobs as they see it, their vision is myopic and, in the end, provides far more downside than it does protection.

I've discussed this issue at length with some of the best legal and public relations minds in the country. While they understand their colleagues' approach, they also realize the greater good is to ensure that the company is as prepared as reasonably possible for a pandemic. So, run ideas for making your plan public by these departments:

  • Your legal counsel—Make it clear that your planning document is a work in progress (and process) and is not meant to represent best practices. As there are no ISO standards for pandemic preparedness, no one can be held accountable for not meeting them. A company's liability for a lack of pandemic preparedness will trump any risk from putting out a plan that can be constantly improved.
  • Your public relations professionals—Ask them how they'll explain during a pandemic why your company was ill-prepared because you didn't do all you could to vet your plan and learn of potential best preparedness practices from other businesses—whether competitors or not. 

Bottom line for business

Companies have more to lose by not sharing preparedness plans. I urge you to have the courage and fortitude to make your plans public—for the benefit of your company and for the common good. When your company is serious about pandemic preparedness, your plan will show up on the home page of your Web site. And it will be updated frequently—and vastly improved—as you learn from friends and competitors.

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