7 ways to wrangle an unpredictable leader

Prepare a crisis plan, seize control of media relations, and, if necessary, develop a new public face. Above all, be brave.

A rogue CEO can be a PR pro’s worst nightmare.

You might have an exec who spouts embarrassing public comments or commits unethical actions. Perhaps you’re dealing with someone who’s just plain oblivious to decorum.

Rather than wondering whether their critics might have a point, these sorts of leaders often haughtily discount criticism and spurn advice.

Already one of the most stressful occupations, PR becomes far worse with a rogue CEO regularly committing image-damaging blunders. Unfortunately, the CEO is often the company’s de facto spokesperson and its public symbol. What can communicators do when the CEO is a walking PR disaster? PR experts offer these recommendations:

Be brave. You may be hesitant to confront someone with a seven-figure compensation package. Don’t be. It’s your job to help correct execs, says Denise Kaufmann, director of North America client development for Ketchum. Find confidence in your communication expertise. If you work for a public company, you may have to enlist the chairman or lead independent director in your efforts.

Document everything. Keep a detailed, written record of your conversations with the CEO and send him or her a copy, Kaufmann says. Make sure there’s a clear record of when you offered fact-based strategy and advice—even if it’s ignored.

Seize control of the narrative. If your CEO is prone to offensive rants or careless language, assume control over media relations and communications—including news interviews. The CEO can continue posting content on social media, but only after you review the content, advises Wendy Bulawa Agudelo at Axia Public Relations. “Steel yourself, because this won’t be an easy battle to wage or win,” Agudelo says.

Suggest that PR manage social media. CEOs are busy running the company. Pontificating on social media is a poor use of their time, says Parna Sarkar-Basu, founder of Brand and Buzz Marketing. The marketing or communications team can manage the CEO’s personal brand as it manages the corporate brand. “Make the executive look good, while he/she stays focused on the business,” says Sarkar-Basu.

Get PR analytics. PR measurement can provide data that proves the CEO’s blunders are indeed serious mistakes. Social media analytics, financial statements, stock price reports, news media headlines and focus group feedback can all reveal shifts in sentiment. PR analytics enable you to present the CEO with facts, not emotions. “No one enjoys being told he’s done something wrong, least of all an ego-rich CEO. Therefore, you’ll need to let the data do the talking,” Agudelo advises.

Separate the CEO from the brand. The PR dilemma is exacerbated when the CEO’s image is intertwined with the brand. This is common when the CEO founded the company, such as Papa John’s founder and former CEO John Schnatter.  PR pros faced with this sort of quandary should work hard to develop a new public face and persona.

Prepare a PR crisis plan. Craft a strategy for responding to misbehaving CEOs in your organization’s PR crisis plan. Preparing a plan is just as essential as trying to avoid disasters. Form a crisis response team—with an assigned spokesperson—and outline how information will be communicated to internal and external stakeholders and the general public.

If you wait until your leader goes rogue to formulate a crisis response plan, you’re already too late.

A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.

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