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Crisis communications and the CEO

By Jim Preen.

These days, CEOs have to be visible in an emergency. If the media feels they’re hiding, questions will be asked. Why’s she not taking responsibility? What’s he got to hide?

Part of the problem for a CEO is the huge switch that happens to their lives in a crisis: a switch that goes to the very heart of what it means to be a boss.

Over the years a chief executive rises to the top of the corporate ladder, is well remunerated, but saddled with heavy responsibilities. Naturally their staff and others treat them with a great deal of deference and respect, but outside their own sector they are often unknown to the general public. They are high profile to their staff, but remain, in most cases, private citizens.

A crisis erupts and what happens? In the space of a few hours the high earning, highly respected private individual becomes public property who is treated with little or no respect by journalists and members of the public.

We’ve seen, with the missing Malaysian Flight 370 and the Korean ferry tragedy, family members of the victims hurling abuse (not to mention water bottles) at company and government officials. Politicians may be used to this cut and thrust, but for most others it’s deeply unsettling.

An unexpected surprise

Chief executives are now generally expected to be good communicators. So how could BP’s Tony Hayward make such a gaffe as to say during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: “I’d like my life back"? An extremely tactless remark, given that eleven men had lost their lives during the initial explosion on the rig.

One answer may be the circumstances. He didn’t make the remark in a big set piece interview with a national broadcaster or newspaper where he would have been prepped with key messages and answers to tough questions. He made the remark when he was walking around outside, not expecting to face the press. Journalists call it monstering; when victims are caught unawares leaving their office or getting into a car.

While a CEO shouldn’t hide, it may well be appropriate in the early stages of a crisis to field a more junior spokesperson. If you make the CEO available right away it might stoke the situation and, whereas CEOs are expected to have all the answers, that may not be true of a subordinate.

Double act

Last year when Royal Bank of Scotland, including NatWest, had severe problems with their online services, the chief executive Stephen Hester was visible, but was not the person who gave the majority of interviews. That responsibility fell to director of customer services Susan Allen, who did a great job explaining in a very calm and measured way what was happening and when the problems would be resolved. It was a double act that really worked.

If yours is an international company and a crisis erupts overseas it’s always a good idea to have a local spokesperson talk to local people.

Ultimately it may be that the chief executive will have to speak but once again that was a problem for Tony Hayward, where a cut glass British accent didn’t play well with an American audience.

So, are there any circumstances where you shouldn’t field a chief executive in a crisis? Perhaps you might want to limit their exposure if they are not capable public speakers, but in general there are two reasons to field a CEO: very good news and very bad news.

The author

Jim Preen is head of media at Crisis Solutions.

•Date: 28th May 2014 • UK/World •Type: Article • Topic: Crisis communications

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