For in-house attorneys, table-top exercises offer a valuable tool to stress test a company’s crisis response plans.

The most effective way to conduct these exercises, however, was a point of contention for in-house counsel panelists at the second and final day of Corporate Counsel’s 29th Annual General Counsel Conference in New York City.

One approach is to have all relevant people in the room to participate in the simulated crisis. Roughly twice a year, this is what News Corp. does, said panelist Genie Gavenchak, senior vice president and deputy general counsel at the media company. She said the company includes representatives from every department at headquarters that would be “potentially relevant in a situation,” which can include legal, HR, IT, finance, physical security and investor relations.

Not everyone knows what the given scenario is going to be, though, Gavenchak said. For instance, one scenario dealt with in a News Corp. table-top exercise was an explosion in the building. In that case, Gavenchak said she knew the scenario and so did a couple of others in security, but that’s it. 

The group worked through the response plan based on information that was fed to them throughout the exercise, she said, adding that these can run anywhere from an hour-and-a-half to half a day.

But for panelist Lynn McCreary, chief legal officer, chief compliance officer and corporate secretary at financial services provider Fiserv Inc., having everyone in a room for a table-top exercise doesn’t mimic a realistic crisis situation. “We don’t put people in the room because that’s not how our world works,” she explained. “Nobody’s ever in the room, nobody’s ever in their office. People are usually in bed or on a boat or on a plane or somewhere you can’t get them. So we want to simulate our reality.”

McCreary said she has done a table-top exercise in which everyone was meant to be in the room. But “the important people didn’t show up,” according to McCreary, and she doesn’t think “anybody really appreciated what we were doing.”

Gavenchak countered that while it’s certainly important to “test being able to get people on a line, regardless of whether they’re in India or in New York,” her experience has been that it’s critical to have people in the room for table-top exercises.

“I understand completely that you have to prepare for people not being in the room,” she said. “But doing it in the room was really important for us and it actually, I think, made people much more nervous about not being prepared than if they had been, you know, just doing something else and were probably on their iPhones while we were having the conversation.”

Another panelist, Estela Valdez, vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at supply chain management company Browz, said adding the element of uncertainty to a table-top exercise can be very revealing. Crisis management training is done annually at Browz, she said, and it’s typically been a planned exercise at which all involved excel.

Last year, however, in an effort to upgrade in certain areas of the crisis plan, the decision was made to do an unannounced table-top exercise on a Saturday, Valdez said. “We failed miserably,” she explained. “And that exposed a host of weaknesses, not just in the crisis plan, but also in how people perceived the crisis, even though they have been trained, even though they have a copy of the plan.”

“When you come prepared because you know you’re doing this, your mindset is a little different,” she said. “When you’re caught by surprise, you would be surprised at how people manage and react to certain scenarios.”