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Media and Crisis Management

When Should the CEO Be Spokesperson?

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: When Should the CEO Be Spokesperson?Crisis communications

In 2002, as rescuers dramatically saved 9 coal miners trapped in Somerset, PA, the chief spokesperson was Governor Mark Schweiker; not an expert in mines, safety or rescue, not a law enforcement officer or local political official, but the Governor, the chief executive of the state. He updated the media, and – importantly – briefed families hourly. Gov. Schweiker was the face of the rescue until the miners surfaced. Some reporters wondered why. A Fox Newschannel anchor asked, “Does he have some special knowledge…?” He didn’t, but he got universal praise. CNN thanked the governor for his leadership and for “setting a new standard.”

Governor Mark Schweiker’s actions resurrected a common crisis management question. When should a chief executive – political or corporate – be spokesperson during a crisis? What if he or she says something wrong? What if someone makes a mistake? Isn’t this self-aggrandizing? Isn’t this PR? Shouldn’t a subordinate speak to shield the CEO and company from potential legal action? Isn’t this just to win votes? (Schweiker was not running for reelection).

Importantly, if the crisis action fails, won’t it taint the executive? A CNN reporter asked the governor what he would have done if the effort had been unsuccessful. Gov. Schweiker 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 mike? This question takes on greater significance following Rudy Giuliani’s tireless leadership of 9/11, and greedy, unscrupulous CEO’s tarnishing business leader reputations. Nowadays, would a chief executive who does NOT step up to the plate be seen as uncaring?

So, again, the question. When should the chief executive be spokesperson in a crisis?

The short answer, “When he wants to do it!”

You can talk tactics and strategy, but in the end it comes down to the management style of the person at the top. I know a client CEO who is warm, caring, thoughtful, and easily the most persuasive person in the executive suite. Although his plate is full with managing plants across the continent and many employees, he wants, WANTS, to talk to the media when the chips are down – big chips and small. Sure there is a risk – and there has been a close call or two – but there is no one better and he likes to do it. I say let ‘em rip as long as support staffs provide good information and counsel. The recent corporate scandals notwithstanding, the CEO is usually the sharpest tool in the shed – so use it.

Nevertheless, there are at least 6 occasions when the lead dog should NOT speak.

  1. No one should speak – When legality and confidentiality are paramount and miscommunication potentially catastrophic, then few words or no words may be best.
  2. The CEO’s not the expert – If there is a good communicator who knows much more about the situation at hand then let him do it. The CEO can still be alongside and upfront if he chooses.
  3. The CEO’s not the appropriate spokesperson – A chief executive, for example, may want to personally tell employees of their impending layoff. However – since workers’ feelings are paramount – if they haven’t met him, they would probably prefer getting the bad news from an executive to whom they felt closer – a plant manager, for instance.
  4. It’s not practical – If the issue is small the chief executive really might have better things to do. Reasonable people know that, and a lower ranking executive could do fine.
  5. The CEO’s cold – Autocrats are rarely empathetic. Find someone warm.
  6. The CEO’s shy – Don’t laugh. A few simply don’t have the constitution. Don’t force it.

These are not engraved in stone. Not communicating is the greater danger. A company can always find a reason not to talk, much less offer the CEO.

However, if your lead dog is a top communicator and is willing, why not take advantage of it?

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