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.