Crisis Management: Given BP – Should Your CEO Be Spokesperson: Crisis communications
BP CEO Tony Hayward tried and failed as spokesperson for the Gulf oil spill. Why? Goodness knows, this was a CEO-as-spokesperson calamity. Hayward wasn’t temperamentally and constitutionally suited. Once lower-key, warmer executives replaced him then the focus shifted to the spill and its impact rather than the communicator, as it should have. (The U.S. Coast Guard”s Adm. Thad Allen was most reassuring and transparent of all.)
Often, using the top person works. In 2002 a Somerset, PA, coal mine collapsed and trapped 9 miners who were ultimately freed. The chief spokesperson was then-Governor Mark Schweiker instead of an expert in mines, safety, rescue, law enforcement or local politics. Pennsylvania’s chief executive updated media regularly and families hourly. He remained the face of the rescue until the miners surfaced. Schweiker got near-universal praise. One anchor thanked him for his leadership and for “setting a new standard.” Schweiker was not running for reelection.
Given these extremes, when should the top official be spokesperson? After all, the downsides are significant. The chief exec is the institution. There’s no appeal. Those words are the company’s words. Liability and otherwise, the exec and the company are naked. No buffer. Furthermore, as we’ve seen with BP, CEO failure taints everyone. Also, as in Hayward’s case, CEO and company survival could be in question with a serious communications failure. Gov. Schweiker knew these odds when he said, “As the lead dog, I knew that everything I would say and do would be toward an expectation of success.” However, he admitted talking confidentially with some about failure and said, “We would be standing here lamenting lost lives.”
When should the chief executive “grab the crisis mike”?
- When she wants to. It’s her company.
- When she has something to do. In a disaster, she should be acting in some problem-solving capacity. It will give her something to talk about.
- When she has something to say. No small thing, this. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up someplace else. Ask Hayward.
- When she’s free to do so. Sometimes, legal and regulatory constraints hamper full disclosure, but she has to protect the brand and communication risks may be necessary to preserve public support.
- When it suits her style. CEO’s are smart and most are better than average communicators. Nevertheless, some are warm and some are reserved. Don’t force it. If another C-suite exec is a better fit then let them do it.
- When someone’s got her back. She can’t do it all. Company experts, lawyers, scientists, PR spokespeople, and others must fill in the blanks.
These guidelines are not set in stone. The greater danger is saying nothing. A company can always find a reason not to talk, much less offer a CEO. Recent corporate scandals notwithstanding, the CEO is usually the sharpest tool in the shed. Use it.