Commentators around the world commonly promote the CEO as Chief Communication Officer, or as Chief Environmental Officer, or occasionally even as Chief Reputation Officer. But what best practice requires now is the CEO as Chief Crisis Management Officer, and that is much harder to “sell” along the mahogany-lined walls of the executive suite.
Of course the role of CEO as spokesperson in a crisis is well known and well understood (including the fact that there are good reasons why the CEO is sometimes NOT the best spokesperson). However that activity is purely responsive – it’s about what gets said when the crisis has already struck.
This is a guest post from Tony Jaques*, an internationally recognised consultant and authority on issue and crisis management.
Yet the true role of CEO leadership in crisis management should be much more, and public relations practitioners have a real opportunity to identify and help develop that broader responsibility.
Crisis management as executive responsibility
The concept of crisis management as an integrated executive responsibility is a key theme of my new book, Issue and Crisis Management (Oxford 2014).
It shows that comprehensive crisis management extends from long before the crisis with identifying issues and potential crises; through introducing and activating effective crisis prevention and response; and continues long after operational resumption to include post-crisis risk issues such as inquiries, inquests and adverse legal action.
It’s not surprising that a crisis situation turns the spotlight on leaders as the human face of any organisation. As US reputation expert Leslie Gaines-Ross says: “Just as CEOs receive most of the credit when things go right, they are also expected to accept the majority of the blame when things go wrong, particularly in times of crisis.”
Leslie Gaines-Ross research found. “when crisis strikes, nearly 60 per cent of the responsibility for the crisis is attributed to the CEO.”
CEO: more than a spokesperson in crisis management
One result of this attention on the CEO is that a lot of the available material concentrates on the role of the leader as spokesperson in a crisis. But I believe that if CEOs understood better how much blame they will get for the financial and reputational damage when things go wrong, they just might be more willing to take a more active role in helping prevent the crisis happening at all.
If they need any further convincing, you need look no further than the seminal study by Les Coleman at Melbourne University, which examined Australian crises over a ten year period. It found that more than a quarter of those crises cost the organisations concerned in excess of $100 million, and about one in four of the organisations failed to survive.
In my own research interviewing Australian CEOs about crisis preparedness, it became obvious very quickly that top executives simply don’t see crisis management as their immediate priority.
As one CEO told me: “People prioritise based on day-to-day issues and pressures. And, hopefully, on more than 99% of days, crisis management is not an issue or priority. Consequently, I think there is a tendency for people to put it off.
“When it’s time to do the crisis management stuff, there is always something else which is more important in the short term. It’s a matter of planning and priority setting and leadership.”
Accountability and opportunity in crisis management
Crisis (and issue) leadership is about much more than just speaking on behalf of the organisation—albeit a crucial responsibility. Public relations practitioners are in fact ideally placed to help promote what I propose are basic criteria for true crisis leadership:
- Leaders need to be able to help identify issue and crisis threats early and have the forethought to assign sufficient resources to make a difference.
- They need to break down functional barriers to drive the integration of issue and crisis management systems.
- They need to be able to recognise that issues and crisis may represent an opportunity as well as a threat.
- Most critically, they need to provide an example to managers throughout the organisation to take personal responsibility for developing and implementing effective issue management plans to help prevent crises happening in the first place.
It might seem like a tall order, but it might also be the difference between organisational survival and extinction.
What role do you think CEOs should play in crisis management and why? What experience do you have of effectively undertaken proactive involvement in issues and crisis management from CEOs and executive leadership?
*Tony Jaques is an internationally recognised consultant and authority on issue and crisis management. He writes Australia’s only specialist issue and crisis e-newsletter, Managing Outcomes, and is author of Issue and Crisis Management: Exploring issues, crises, risk and reputation (Oxford 2014)
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