When should you turn to your CEO in a crisis?

Your executive can be a wonderful asset in a PR crisis, but undisciplined blather can keep your organization in the headlines. Here’s how (and when) to tap your leaders.

At what point should an organization put its CEO in front of the media during a crisis?

Many organizations call on executives to address journalists and the public when the worst happens. It is a common move that puts a face on the problem and demonstrates contrition.

There are many benefits to this approach. It shows the organization is taking the incident seriously and displays visible leadership and accountability. It can also mean that they can get ahead of the story and control the narrative. In many cases there is the added benefit of the CEO being an experienced and articulate media spokesperson.

However, does that mean it is always the right approach?

A dangerous precedent

One of the biggest problems with this strategy is that if CEO is wheeled out at the start, it can create an expectancy that they are going to front every media interview. If the crisis is likely to run for a while, such a strategy would be exhausting and unmanageable, and that in turn is likely to lead to mistakes.

Another concern is that if you use your heaviest hitter at the start, how can you escalate your response if the crisis deepens?

A recent example would be Paul Pester, CEO of TSB. As the bank tried respond to a major IT failure, Mr Pester was immediately visible and quick to apologize.

In terms of communication, you could argue that he followed the crisis communications playbook closely. However, the bank was unable to quickly fix the problem and that meant that as the crisis persisted and worsened, it had no way of escalating its response.

He might still have taken the fall with a different approach, but perhaps being less visible so soon would have helped prevent the crisis form being so closely associated with him personally.

Protecting your leaders’ power

If you use your CEO every time something goes wrong, it will reduce his or her impact. These top bosses are a brand’s prized spokesperson, the public face of the organization, and there is a strong case for holding them back for really big announcements and when things go catastrophically wrong.

There’s also an argument that using the CEO to front the response can send the wrong message, perhaps suggesting that the situation is worse than it actually is. It can raise the stakes.

CEOs shouldn’t be distant or detached during a crisis media management incident. They do need to be visible, they just don’t need to be in the media firing line from the start.

A tough choice

Judging the right time to put a CEO in the media spotlight is tricky. You need to put them forward before people start asking where they are, and you also want to avoid using them as a spokesperson when a solution is imminent.

An early and ongoing assessment needs to be made about the crisis, its likely longevity, potential impact and the risk to reputation. You may not need to use your CEO at all.

One of the most successful examples of a crisis response last year was provided by KFC.

Distribution problems deprived the fast-food chain of its most crucial ingredient—chicken—and restaurants across the country were forced to close.

Yet despite this issue, the brand emerged with its reputation intact, possibly even enhanced. All this without an interview from its CEO, or even a quote.

Adam Fisher is the content editor for Media First, a media and communications training firm with over 30 years of experience. A version of this article originally appeared on the Media First blog.

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