The CEO is (or should be) the most prized communications asset at a company’s disposal. He or she drives corporate strategy and gives voice to performance and progress. The CEO establishes the building blocks of corporate culture and is often the public face of the company. They exemplify all that is good, bad, promising or disheartening about an organisation, so whether or not they are the spokesperson for an organisation in crisis is a question of fundamental importance for corporate communicators.

The PR pressures of crisis management

[This is a guest post by Jane Jordan-Meier, whose book on crisis media management, The Four Highly Effective Stages of Crisis Management: How to Manage the Media in the Digital Age, has just been released.]

Choosing a spokesperson in a crisis is very perplexing for many organizations. Many assume that it must be the top dog, the CEO, the managing director or the chairman. Not always so. When a CEO takes ownership of a crisis and is the vehicle for the response the reputation stakes, do not forget, rise dramatically – just ask BP!

The bottom line?

  • Is the CEO capable of connecting with stakeholders in a compelling, compassionate manner?

It is a matter of credibility. As Martin Newman said in his report, ‘Shaken not Stirred’, for The Company Agency (London, 2008), “People are much quicker at spotting inconsistencies when times are tough. CEOs should never underestimate that every twitch of their facial expression is interpreted. When people are looking at leaders, they are constantly trying to interpret them in ways that are often subliminal.”

Leaders in crisis communication

Contrast Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and Prime Minister Julia Gillard during the recent devastating floods – both leaders, but clearly one a more effective spokesperson than the other. Gillard made the right moves – being in all the right places, but was often off-key, wooden. Bligh hit the right tone, resonated more with her constituents.

Just as U.S. President Barack Obama spoke in detail about the shooting victims with the right emotional tone at the memorial service of the January 2010 tragedy in Tucson Arizona, so did Anna Bligh. As Anne Davies wrote in the Fairfax Media outlets, “At press conferences, Bligh seems to know every tiny town in every valley, aware of who will face the next threat and how high the rivers will rise … she has struck the right note of grim determination, tinged with emotion.”

Disasters are defining moments. The biggest test of a company’s indeed a country’s values. Rudy Giuliani became a household hero as New York mayor on September 11, 2001. President George Bush’s slide began when he took three days to properly respond to hurricane Katrina.

Leaders in crisis communication scenarios

It would be unthinkable that the Prime Minister or CEO wouldn’t speak nor be present when an event as devastating as the Queensland floods takes place, or there are serious questions about national security, or the safety of employees and consumers – think Alan Joyce, CEO, Qantas during the recent Airbus troubles. Notably Rolls Royce, the makers of the engine that blew apart on a Qantas A380 Airbus said very little.

Leaders’ involvement in a crisis can send many, many messages and some intended, some not. Often, their presence conveys that the situation is serious enough to impact the company’s future. In some cases, the CEO can fuel the bushfire rather than dampen the flames. Again think of Tony Hayward’s performance during the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Questions when determining crisis communication spokespeople

Rushing your CEO to the front lines is easy. They indeed may the most articulate voice. But my advice is to think very carefully about the issues at hand and their long-term implications before putting the CEO out front.

As a basic rule, go for the person that is most credible, most believable, most authentic and has the genuine interest of the affected community/consumers/constituents at heart.

Will they pass the grace under fire question? Are they believable in that first nanosecond – yes that is all you have today to prove your credibility.

Research shows that it takes just a staggering 115 milliseconds for us to make a judgment based on body language. “Phony expressions usually do not fool us,” says Professor Beatrice de Gelder, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and Harvard Medical School.

Generally, the best spokesperson is local, accountable and likeable. As veteran Australian speechwriter, Don Watson, said of Anna Bligh, ”She’s a little less modern and a little more Churchillian, and people respond to that.” State premier versus (national) Prime Minister.

They also need enough authority to back up their words with actions. And actions speak louder than words – always, but particularly in a crisis.

Organisations in crisis: a PR challenge

But, if your crisis is truly a show-stopping event and the company’s reputation is clearly on the line (e.g., there have been multiple deaths, the scale of the crisis is huge – think Exxon Valdez, 9/11, the Qantas Airbus jet explosions and the monumental Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill ), then it’s imperative that the head of the organisation is at the scene, getting their hands dirty. They may know less, but their physical presence sends two powerful messages: I care and I am accountable.”

So you decide you need the CEO there; the scale and the potential damage to reputation are just too big. Then make sure that they are very well trained and drilled. It should be obvious, but please never ever let the CEO out without serious, professional and regular training and coaching.

At media conferences:

  • Back up with the CEO with relevant operational mangers who can supply the more concrete details of the crisis – the boat captains, the engineers, the factory supervisor
  • The CEO is there to say they’re accountable, they take responsibility to make sure that everything will be done to fix the problem and, above, all to provide empathy and demonstrate genuine concern
  • It is the role of the front-line management to provide the finer details of the recovery and response.

CEOs are important but not sufficient voices for their companies, as engagement is created by mid-level employees with serious knowledge of products and less perceived bias to exaggeration.

So test, test and test your spokespeople. Train like your very life depended on it. Scenario-based crisis training is critical. It will bring bad elements to light. Cross-train for multiple roles so that you have maximum flexibility in a crisis and, more importantly, a deeper coverage of responsibilities.

So no need to jump the gun and bring in the top dog immediately. If you play the trump card immediately where are you going next?

Principal of Jane Jordan & Associates, a boutique training, coaching and advisory firm, Jane Jordan is a communication and media coach with more than two decades of experience in working with executive management in both the government and the private sectors. Most of Jane’s work today is in crisis management training with senior and executive management. Jane has taught at Masters level at UTS and undergraduate communication and PR courses at Charles Sturt as well as numerous PRIA workshops and conferences. Jane can be networked with through her LinkedIn profile and on Twitter @janejordanmeier.  

[This post is included, with many other posts, in a free strategic PR report that can be downloaded free from this blog by email subscribing to it. The report – Public relations 2011: insights ideas issues – features professional practice-adding value from 10 global PR leaders (and me).]

NB. This article is copyright 2011 to Jane Jordan-Meier and is based on research from her book, ‘The Four Highly Effective Stages of Crisis Management: How to manage the media in the digital age’, 14 January, 2011.