Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Jane Jordan-Meier, author and CEO & president of The Media Skills Academy.
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 is often the public face of the company. They exemplify all that is good, bad, promising or disheartening about an organization, so whether or not they are the spokesperson for an organization in crisis is a question of fundamental importance.
Choosing a spokesperson in a crisis is very perplexing for many organizations. Many assume that it must be the top dog, the CEO, the managing director or the chairman. Not always so. When a CEO takes ownership of a crisis and is the vehicle for the response the reputation the stakes, do not forget, rise dramatically – just ask BP!
The bottom line?
Is the CEO capable of connecting with stakeholders in a compelling, compassionate manner?
It is a matter of credibility. As Martin Newman said in his report, ‘Shaken not Stirred’, for The Company Agency (London, 2008):
“People are much quicker at spotting inconsistencies when times are tough. CEOs should never underestimate that every twitch of their facial expression is interpreted. When people are looking at leaders, they are constantly trying to interpret them in ways that are often subliminal.”
Leaders’ involvement in a crisis can send many, many messages and 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 indeed may have 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 out front.
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.
Will they pass the grace under fire question? Are they believable in that first nanosecond – yes that is all you have today to prove your credibility.
Research shows that it takes just a staggering 115 milliseconds for us to make a judgment based on body language. “Phony expressions usually do not fool us,” says Professor Beatrice de Gelder, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and Harvard Medical School.
Generally, the best spokesperson is local, accountable and likeable. They also need to be a little Churchillian and with enough authority to back up their words with actions.
The only way to really know how the CEO will respond is during an actual crisis situation. However, rigorous testing and training is a must – at least annually, ideally quarterly. That training will give everyone some of mind that in an actual crisis, you can trust the top dog to perform with grace.
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.