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At what point should an organisation put its CEO in front of the media during a crisis?
This was a question that came up during a recent crisis communications exercise which we held for one of our clients.
Many organisations automatically use their CEO as their spokesperson when the worst happens.
It is almost the default option to get them into the media and to show the world how contrite they are.
And there are many benefits to this approach. It shows the organisation is taking the incident seriously and displays visible leadership and accountability. It can also mean that they can get ahead of the story and control the narrative.
In many cases there is the added benefit of the CEO being an experienced and articulate media spokesperson.
But does that mean it is always the right approach?
One of the biggest problems I have with this strategy is that if the CEO is wheeled out at the start, it can create an expectancy that they are going to front every media interview.
If the crisis is likely to run for a while, that tactic would be exhausting and unmanageable. And that in turn is likely to lead to mistakes.
Another concern is that if you use your most high profile person at the start, how can you escalate your response if the crisis deepens?
I can remember dealing with a large-scale IT failure in a previous role and there being pressure internally for the CEO to be put forward to speak to the media. I had reason to suspect that the situation would get worse before it got better so we opted for the IT director as the spokesperson at that stage.
That gave us the option to have the CEO in our back pocket if the situation did get worse (which it did).
A more recent example would be Paul Pester, CEO of TSB. As the bank tried to grip a major IT failure, Mr Pester was visible and quick to apologise.
In terms of communication, you could argue that he followed the crisis communications playbook pretty closely. But the bank was unable to quickly fix the problem and that meant that as the crisis persisted and worsened, it had no way of escalating its response.
I’m not saying he would have survived had he taken a different approach, but perhaps being less visible so soon would have helped prevent the crisis being so closely associated with him personally.
Additionally, if you use your CEO every time something goes wrong, it will reduce their impact. These top bosses are a brand’s prized spokesperson, the public face of the organisation, and there is a strong case for holding them back for the really big announcements and when things go badly wrong.
There’s also an argument that using the CEO to front the response can actually send the wrong message, perhaps suggesting that the situation is worse than it actually is. It can raise the stakes.
Of course, I am not arguing that CEOs should be distant or detached during a crisis media management incident. They do need to be visible, they just don’t need to be in the media firing line from the start.
The reality is that judging the right time to put a CEO in the media spotlight during a crisis is tricky.
You need to put them forward before people start asking where they are and you also want to avoid using them as a spokesperson when a solution is imminent.
And that means an early and ongoing assessment needs to be made about the crisis, its likely longevity, potential impact and the risk to reputation.
But it is also worth considering that you may not need to use your CEO at all.
Distribution problems deprived the fast-food chain of its most crucial ingredient – chicken – and restaurants across the country were forced to close.
Yet despite this issue, the brand emerged with its reputation intact, possibly even enhanced. And not once did I see and interview from its CEO or even a quote.
Find out more about preparing for a crisis by downloading our free eBook. It includes a guide to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities.
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