“I want my life back.” Former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s famous statement during a giant oil spill on the gulf coast has probably already made it into the PR textbooks as a classic example of how not to handle a PR crisis. While there’s plenty to be learned from Hayward’s blunder about messaging, taking responsibility and showing compassion, it should also cause us to step back and think about the CEO’s overarching role in the PR crisis. Should the CEO be the one on the front lines holding press conferences and giving interviews or is this better left to others in the organization?
The best answer is probably: it depends. While every PR manager would love to have their dream CEO with a charismatic, caring and articulate personality, that is far from the case in many organizations, so when creating that crisis plan, remember these factors when determining the role of the CEO.
1. Who is the Company Spokesperson?
Oftentimes the CEO is the face of the company and the spokesperson, but that is not always the case. Sometimes another executive is better recognized by the public or perhaps has the right personality for interacting with media, and companies with little public or media attention may not have an established spokesperson at all. Rather than throwing an unfamiliar face, and most likely less trained, CEO in the limelight, allow the natural spokespeople in the company to handle the press conferences as those are the people the public and the media expect to hear from anyway.
2. Consider the Nature of the Situation
When a local disaster strikes, such as the oil spill in the gulf coast, or a technical glitch occurs, the CEO is frequently distanced from the actual situation due to geography or a lack of expertise. While the CEO should certainly still be in the picture, failing to involve local leadership and experts significantly raises the chances of communication blunders. Instead, the CEO should defer questions to leaders who are most familiar with the situation and the people impacted by it.
At the same time, problems that are directly associated with the role of the CEO, such as the overall structure or direction of the company, should be addressed by the CEO or another top executive. For example, NuSkin is currently being investigated by the Chinese government, and the CEO responded to the allegations directly in an interview with Bloomberg reporters.
3. Avoid Natural Impulses
While its easy to identify others’ PR blunders and claim that we will never make the same mistake, our natural inclinations are to defend ourselves and hide from threats when they occur. The best way to avoid this mistake is to have a plan in place that was created with a clear head and all of the company’s stakeholders in mind. Part of this should be defining the expectations for the CEO. Don’t forget that internal communications are just as important in a crisis as external, so have a communication system in place of how the CEO will communicate with the rest of the company along with their role in communicating with the media.
What role do you think the CEO should play in a crisis situations? Are there crisis situations that warrant a response from someone other than the CEO?
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