Incidents have always been a fact of life for people in IT and Ops. Today, it’s web developers, cloud service providers, and DevOps practitioners that are getting a crash course in incident communication.

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Web scale incident communication is more complex than simply sending a bulk email. There are different audiences to consider. Different thresholds for messaging and response expectations.

Since downtime is inevitable, it’s best to plan ahead and make sure your team is ready.

This is our guide to incident communication best practices. We’ll cover:

  • Why incident communication is important
  • How to prep for incident communication
  • How incident communication pros handle the task
  • Why incident communication doesn’t end after the incident

Incident communication: Who cares?

Your customers care. Your colleagues care. You should care. Poorly handled downtime can be a really bad experience for your customers and your teams, which can affect your bottom line. Some of your customers may worry you have more bad experiences up your sleeves and switch to a competitor. You’ll lose future customers due to lack of trust. Team morale can suffer and lead to lower productivity. And say goodbye to all those juicy word-of-mouth referrals.

Luckily, unplanned downtime doesn’t have to turn into a customer service nightmare. It turns out that if you just keep your customers in the loop by communicating what’s happening and what you’re doing to fix the problem, they’ll understand and have a much less negative reaction to the whole situation.

Prepping for incident communication

Proper preparation prevents poor performance. If it’s a good enough slogan for going into battle, it’s good enough for your incident communication strategy. When you’re in the heat of an incident, you’ll thank yourself that you put time into incident communication.

Define what you consider an incident

Before we can communicate incidents, we need to decide what constitutes an incident. Many web companies rely on a standardized 4-tier severity definition system. Here’s a great guide on severity definitions from our friends at VMware.

Whatever your thresholds are for incident severity, it’s important to make a clear line in the sand (ideally around some sort of measurable metric). If you designate an incident at Sev 1, it’s important for anyone on your team to be able to know exactly what that means.

A severity system is also helpful to eliminate the inherent shades of grey that come with downtime.

No matter what system you settle on, we recommend a zero-tolerance communication plan for any incidents involving any amount of security issues and data loss. In two of the highest-profile incidents of the past year — occurring at Gitlab and Dyn — both organizations benefitted from great transparency and communication.

Pick your communication channels and messages ahead of time

Professional support teams and site reliability engineers don’t decide on the fly what channels to communicate over. They make a plan ahead of time.

There are five main communication channels for incident communication:

  1. A dedicated status page
  2. Embedded status widget
  3. Email
  4. Workplace chat tool
  5. Social media

Dedicated status page

We recommend teams use a dedicated status page for incident communication. Whether you build it yourself or go with a hosted solution like StatusPage, it’s important to give your customers and colleagues a clear source of truth during an incident. StatusPage also gives your users an option to subscribe to get updates the moment they’re posted. This takes the support burden off teams who should be heads-down fixing the problem.

Embedded status widget

At StatusPage, we make it easy to embed status information directly onto any website our customers operate. We know most visitors are likely to check a provider’s home page or support page before looking for a status page. The embedded widget is an easy way of letting those visitors know if an incident is underway. Visitors can also click through on the widget to get to the status page.

Email

Like we just mentioned, a good status page tool will give your audience the option to subscribe to email updates. Even if you’re sending the emails manually, it’s a good channel for incident communication.

Chat tools

Chat tools like HipChat and Slack have taken over the workplace in recent years. Many teams set up a dedicated war room for incident communications, or spin up a new room for each incident. Check out our integrations with chat tools here.

Social media

Many teams use social channels like Twitter as a means of communication during an incident. It’s good to use this as a piece of your strategy, but not rely on it as your only means of communication.

None of these channels are a magic bullet for incident comms. They all have different strengths, and the real power comes when you layer them together. For example, we post incidents to a status page but also push those updates to Twitter and an integration inside our web app. These messages then direct the user back to the status page for more details on the incident. We recommend that you identify one as your primary communication vehicle and funnel everyone there from the other channels.

Set up templates for incident communication

In the heat of an incident, the last thing you want to worry about is how to wordsmith an incident announcement. Wording the incident the wrong way is a perfect target for non-technical managers who might be looking for any reason to criticize your team’s response process.

Decide on the common language ahead of time, get it approved by your managers and save it in a template. This makes it easy to plug in the relevant details and fire off an incident the day of.

Here are two of the incident templates we use for our own status page:

  • The site is currently experiencing a higher than normal amount of load, and may be causing pages to be slow or unresponsive. We’re investigating the cause and will provide an update as soon as possible.

 

  • Our storage provider for public metrics data is currently experiencing infrastructure issues. Updates will be made available as the situation develops or information is provided to us.

Check out more examples in our incident template library.

Managing communication like a pro

The lifecycle of an incident will likely include several points of contact. Done well, there’s a familiar three-act structure to an incident: First contact, updates during the incident, resolution and post-mortem.

Part 1: First contact

The initial update is the most important. Everything from what you say, to how and when you say it sets the tone for how your response will be perceived. This is where it really helps to have a template set up ahead of time.

Your goal should be to quickly acknowledge the issue, briefly summarize the known impact, promise further updates and, if you’re able, alleviate any concerns about security or data loss.

Part 2: Updates during the incident

Mid-incident communication is critical.

The SRE teams at Google list Communication Lead as one of the key roles someone should oversee during an incident.

From Google’s book “Site Reliability Engineering” on the role of Communication lead:

This person is the public face of the incident response task force. Their duties most definitely include issuing periodic updates to the incident response team and stakeholders (usually via email), and may extend to tasks such as keeping the incident document accurate and up to date.

This person will also be in charge of continuing to update the status page or post updates to other channels as the situation evolves. Even an updating saying “We’re still working on the problem, nothing new to report.” is better than saying nothing and leaving your audiences hanging. People left in the dark start to expect the worst.

Part 3: Conclusion, post-mortem, what comes next

In 2010, Facebook suffered its largest outage to date. For about 2.5 hours, the social network was unavailable for millions of its then-half-a-billion users.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for the burgeoning tech giant, which was still in the early days of its explosive user growth and still proving to the business world that the service was worth the hype.

When the dust settled, a Facebook engineer posted a 395-word summary to the company’s engineering blog about the incident.

From the blog:

Early today Facebook was down or unreachable for many of you for approximately 2.5 hours. This is the worst outage we’ve had in over four years, and we wanted to first of all apologize for it. We also wanted to provide much more technical detail on what happened and share one big lesson learned.

You can read the full post here. The outline of the post-mortem is simple:

  • Acknowledge the problem, empathize with those affected and apologize
  • Explain what went wrong and why
  • Explain what was done to fix the incident and what was done to prevent repeat incidents
  • Acknowledge, empathize, and apologize once again

There’s no need for flowery language or grandiose claims in communication like this. Keep it simple and direct. For example, from the Facebook blog:

We apologize again for the site outage, and we want you to know that we take the performance and reliability of Facebook very seriously.

Language like this makes it easy for your customers and colleagues to trust that you’re a level-headed team with their eye on the ball. We’ve all grown pretty tolerant of technical hiccups, and have certain standards for knowing that, sometimes, things just break. Responding well can make all the difference.

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This post was originally published on the StatusPage blog in 2017.

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