The choice of spokespeople in a crisis is critical. How they communicate can be a make it or break it moment—for them, for the organization, for the brand. But for many people, the question of who
is a vexed, sometimes contentious issue.
The CEO—the top dog—is not necessarily the best choice every time.
Here’s the bottom line: Is your spokesperson capable of connecting with stakeholders in a compelling, compassionate, and credible manner?
Does he or she have grace under fire? Does this person keep his or her emotions under control? Is the spokesperson authentic and convincing?
Disasters and crises are defining moments. They are the biggest test of a company’s (even a nation’s) values. Rudy Giuliani became a hero and household name as New York mayor on Sept. 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 question of the CEO: Should he or she 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 is the public face of the company. He or she exemplifies 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 messages—some intended, some not. Often, the CEO’s presence conveys that the situation is serious enough to affect 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. He or she 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 CNN, The New York Times
, or YouTube.
Take, for example, Domino’s Pizza, which 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 thing, but the overall impression was anything but right.
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 he or she is media savvy
and reasonably articulate, is going to be more believable than the CEO, who is typically a far removed from the action.
That said, it would be unthinkable for the CEO not to appear and be seen to be accountable when the stakes are high. Even though the CEO may know less about the details, his or her 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, and most authentic, and has the genuine interest of the affected community/consumers/constituents at heart.
Jane Jordan-Meier is principal of Jane Jordan & Associates, a boutique training, coaching and advisory firm. Her book on crisis media management, “The Four Highly Effective Stages of Crisis Management: How to Manage the Media in the Digital Age” was released in May 2011. Connect with Jane through her LinkedIn profile and on Twitter @janejordanmeier. A version of this story first appeared as a guest post on the blog, MelissaAgnes.com.