To CEO or Not? Who makes the best Spokesperson in a Crisis?

Note from the editor: I’m very pleased to be sharing with you a guest post from crisis management trainer, Jane Jordan-Meier, author of The Four Highly Effective Stages of Crisis Management: How to Manage the Media in the Digital Age.

The choice of spokespeople in a crisis is critical. How they communicate can be a break it or make it moment – for them, for the organization, for the brand. But for many the question of who is a vexed, sometimes contentious issue.

The CEO, the top dog is not necessarily always the best choice.

The bottom line is this:

  • Is your spokesperson capable of connecting with stakeholders in a compelling, compassionate and credible manner?

Do they have grace under fire? Do they keep their emotions under control?  Are they authentic and convincing in what they say?

Disasters and crises are defining moments. They are the biggest test of a company’s indeed a country’s values. Rudy Giuliani became a household hero as New York mayor on September 11, 2001. President George Bush’s slide began when he took three days to properly respond to hurricane Katrina.  BP’s Tony Hayward was sidelined not long after his, now infamous, “I want my life back” quote during the disastrous Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

So what makes a good spokesperson in a crisis and why?

First the vexed question of the CEO, should s/he be the default spokesperson in a crisis? After all, the CEO is (or should be) the most prized communications asset at a company’s disposal. He or she drives corporate strategy and gives voice to performance and progress. The CEO establishes the building blocks of corporate culture, and often are the public face of the company. They exemplify all that is good, bad, promising or downright ugly about your organization, so when a CEO takes ownership of a crisis and is the vehicle for the response the reputation stakes rise dramatically.

The involvement of the top dog in a crisis can send many, many messages; some intended, some not. Often, their presence conveys that the situation is serious enough to impact the company’s future. In some cases the CEO can fuel the bushfire rather than dampen the flames. Again think of Tony Hayward’s performance during the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Rushing your CEO to the front lines is easy. They may be the most articulate voice. But my advice is to think very carefully about the issues at hand and their long-term implications before putting the CEO before the media, be that the CNN, YouTube or The New York Times.

Let’s take the example of Domino’s Pizza that found itself in hot water in April 2009 after two rogue employees posted YouTube videos of themselves engaging in some vile public health violations. The performance of CEO Patrick Doyle, who appeared publicly a good 48 hours after the incident first aired, was heavily criticized. The words were there – Doyle said the right words, but the overall impression was anything but right. It was “more of an angry rant” at employees; that Doyle was demonstrating “psychological anger at being caught out.

The media want to speak to the driver of the bus or train, the pilot, and the project manager for a first-hand report. That operational spokesperson, as long as they are media savvy and reasonably articulate, is going to be more believable than the CEO, who is typically a long way away from the action.

Having said all that, it would be unthinkable for the CEO not to appear and be seen to be accountable when the stakes are very high indeed. Even though the CEO may know less about the details, their physical presence sends two powerful messages: “I care and I am accountable.”

As a basic rule, go for the person that is most credible, most believable, most authentic and has the genuine interest of the affected community/consumers/constituents at heart.

Author of the highly-reviewed book, The Four Highly Effective Stages of Crisis Management, Jane is the Founder & CEO of The Media Skills Academy. She brings over 25 years’ experience in corporate communications, pubic relations and crisis management, with a wide variety of industries in Australasia and North America.

8 Comments. Leave new

Thanks you Melissa for the opportunity to be a part of your community and present my message. I have this question for our readers: Who is the spokes person for your company in a crisis and why?

Reply

Thank YOU Jane for sharing this great post with us!

Great question to leave us with as well :)

Reply

Jane

Great insights as always. The default position that the CEO should be the spokesperson in a crisis is one which I have challenged for a number of years (see an earlier blog post below).
http://insigniatalks.com/2010/02/breaking-the-gol

The Tony Hayward example is a classic: it's clear that he had to face the media in the early stages of the crisis, but there was no necessity for him to be the prime media contact throughout the entire crisis. Especially when he so patently lacked the skills and personality to succeed in this role.

If your reputation is on the line and you have to make a choice, always pick the spokesperson with the right skills rather than the right job title.

Reply

Beautifully said, Jonathan! Thank you for sharing your past post, insights and comment!

Reply

Let us hope Jonathan that many organizations start to look differently at their spokesperson role and see that the CEO may not the best or right person.However, I do believe and advocate that the CEO MUST be visible and "show-up" when there are deaths or the crisis is VERY serious – their presence shows that they care and they are accuntable.

I also think that a team approach makes more sense and that the technical and "clean-up" spokespeople have a critical role to play too.

I alos liked your February post – trainaing is a good way to test and validate skills, and who will "default to type" in a crisis. Leopards do not change their spots.

Reply

Hi Jane and Melissa – thanks for giving us this great read. Food for thought.

My view is that in their hours of need people respond better to authority if it’s tempered with genuine compassion and humanity.

No-one can teach a politician or an organisation’s spokesperson how to do that. But we know it when we see it and, like cats who know exactly which lap belongs to the kitty-hater, we’re drawn to it.

I blogged about this a short while ago, albeit from my very antipodean perspective: http://www.prblog.co.nz/?p=732

Reply

It's sad to think that, for a politician especially, genuine compassion and humanity are not a prerequisite for the job title. A sad truth that leads to the demise of a many (Townsend comes to mind here).

In terms of choosing the right spokesperson for a company or organization, in this case, it should be seen as an advantage that a brand can choose the *right* person to lead their company publicly through a crisis – even if the CEO or President doesn't exhume these qualities.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Peter! Glad you stopped by 😉

Reply

Peter and Melissa – authenticity, and yuou so righly say Peter humanity are key. We have a very high BS radar today and there is nothing more trubling than to have someone speaking from only their perspective. A crisis effects more than a company and its brand, it impacts the wider community, the industry and of course any victims and their families.

It is a very stressful timeand some spokespeople rise to the occasion in almost a Churchillian way – think of Rudy Giuliani after 9/11 and Down Under, the former Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh.

As people default to type under extreme stress – think Tony Hayward and Ruper Murdoch, it is very important to conduct rigorous training BEFORE any crisis hits to test skills and overall performance. If a CEO refuses then you have your answer!

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Subscribe for VIP Crisis Management Insight!

Each Friday I share exclusive crisis management thoughts, strategies and challenges that I never publish to my blog. Interested in being a part of this VIP group? Subscribe to my newsletter!

I promise to never spam you.
x
Subscribe and arm yourself with Crisis Intelligence!

Get the tips and strategies you need to prevent, manage and overcome any type of organizational crisis, by subscribing to The Crisis Intelligence Blog and Podcast. By subscribing you will receive a weekly email with:

  • My crisis management tip of the week.
  • A roundup of my blog posts and podcast.
  • VIP offerings and insights (including discounts on my books and more).

I promise to never spam you.