Four Questions to Ask Before the CEO Faces the Media
In a crisis, should the chief executive be your media spokesperson? Putting the CEO forward as the face of the organisation should not be a kneejerk reaction: it should be a well considered decision designed to help the organisation communicate most effectively with its stakeholders and thereby protect its reputation.
There’s a principle of crisis management written on tablets of stone that says: “In a crisis, the chief executive must be your media spokesperson”. The principle has served many corporations well...but in other situations the tablet of stone is beginning to crack. Putting the CEO forward as the face of the organisation should not be a kneejerk reaction: it should be a well considered decision designed to help the organisation communicate most effectively with its stakeholders and thereby protect its reputation.
Here are four questions to help you decide your spokesperson strategy.
1) Does the crisis involve loss of life?
If your organisation is at the heart of a crisis where people have been killed, it is almost certain that your CEO should indeed face the media. In these circumstances a message from the very top is essential – not to do this will be seen as cold and uncaring.
2) Is this a grade one crisis?
There can be tendency to over-estimate the scale of a crisis when you are in the middle of handling it. You need to make a cold, hard assessment of the gravity of situation – from an external perspective, not from your own – in order to properly assess its seriousness. Be very wary of putting your CEO forward in all but the most serious of crises. Once you set the benchmark for CEO visibility, he will be expected to appear for all future crises of a similar magnitude. Pitch the benchmark too low and he could be doing nothing but media interviews for the next three years.
3) Is your CEO the most appropriate spokesperson?
The number one priority for a spokesperson in a crisis is to communicate information clearly and effectively to those affected by it. If your crisis is an IT failure, might the IT director not be better able to communicate the problem? If the situation relates to a poor customer experience, might the customer services director not be a more appropriate spokesperson? The media will be perfectly happy with any senior company spokesperson, so put forward the one most relevant and most able to communicate with clarity.
4) Is your CEO an effective media spokesperson?
Just because someone is a CEO does not mean that they will be a charismatic spokesperson. Indeed recent crises – think Toyota, think Eurostar – clearly demonstrate that some CEOs are very ineffective spokespeople. To assess your skill base requires a media training session with all senior executives to identify strengths and weaknesses, potential stars - and those that are simply not cut out for a media career. Thinking about the chief executive in particular, it is clear that he will be called upon to communicate on a regular basis (even if not in front of the media), so whatever his basic skill level a programme to hone and enhance this is essential. Communication skills training plus one to one coaching are likely to provide the best solution.
CEOs can be highly effective spokespeople in a crisis and in some situations have been critical to preserving – and sometimes enhancing – the reputation of their companies under the most intense pressure. Others have simply made the crisis much more damaging. Consider your CEO as a potentially vital part of your crisis response team – but don’t automatically assume that he must face the media in all circumstances.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Hemus is the founder of Insignia Communications - http://www.insigniacomms.com/ -a consultancy specialising in corporate reputation management and crisis communication. His experience in crisis management for a range of global corporations and public sector organisations has helped to protect and preserve many reputations. For regular insights into corporate reputation management, log on to Insignia’s blog, http://www.insigniatalks.com/.