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Breaking the golden rule of crisis management

February 17, 2010 Jonathan Hemus

I used to believe the golden rule of crisis management: in a serious situation, the chief executive should always be the media spokesperson.  Not any more.

Over the last year I’ve seen too many examples of chief executives making situations worse via their media appearance to be able to cling to this principle any longer. Of course, it can be an incredibly powerful way of communicating the right messages and showing leadership when the business needs it most.  When the chief executive takes to the airwaves, high expectations are set: this most senior business person will surely come across as credible, confident and reassuring, the ultimate professional?

And of course this is exactly why the corporation puts him (it usually is him) forward in the first place.  Fielding the chief executive for a media interview underlines the seriousness with which you are taking the situation, your level of concern and your commitment to put it right.  If your CEO has the ability to pull this off, then great.  There’s nothing better than a business leader demonstrating responsibility at a time of crisis.

But what about if he fails to meet the mark?  What about if he comes across as pompous or cold or nervous or defensive or uncaring?  What about if he seems incapable of speaking in clear, simple down to earth language, free of jargon?  What if his body language is so distracting that no one actually listens to the words he is saying?  In any of these circumstances, one has to question whether the company is doing the right thing in offering up the CEO or MD for media interview.

And this conclusion is drawn not just from the perspective of the company, but also from that of anyone affected by the crisis.  At a time of heightened concern, especially when safety or health may be a concern, it is vital that people receive clear, accurate information so that they can respond in the appropriate way.  It’s not fair on them to put forward someone who cannot meet these critieria.

So, how do we address this?  The first step is to identify the latent skill of the senior management team.  This requires a media training session with senior managers to identify strengths and weaknesses, potential stars – and those that are simply not cut out for a media career.  Thinking about the chief executive in particular, it is clear that he will be called upon to communicate on a regular basis, so whatever his basic skill level a programme to hone and enhance this is essential.  Communication skills training plus one to one coaching are likely to provide the best solution.

This auditing of capability and constant improvement of skills enables you to put forward the right person in the right situation.  If your CEO turns out to be a star, so much the better.  If not, far better to put forward the sales director, head of HR or whomever else to represent the business in the event of a crisis.  Doing so serves not only to protect your reputation but also to ensure that people get the information they need.

Jonathan Hemus

  • Jonathan Hemus, Insignia Communications
  • Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jhemusinsignia

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