Three Questions to Answer Before the CEO Speaks

Tony Hayward

Image Courtesy: World Economic Forum

During a crisis is not the time to decide who should be speaking to media. Emphasis should be placed on the strategic messages that he or she will deliver to contribute to the overarching goal of recovery with an intact image.

However, too often organizations have no crisis plan in place and the first question the dominant coalition asks a public relations counselor during a crisis is “who will talk to the media?”

The danger of not having a clearly established plan in place, including who will talk to media and from whom that person will receive his or her information, is the hapless soul thrust in front of a camera may not have any media training or, worse yet, may seem disingenuous, unsympathetic or unintelligent.

The questions

Strategic communication is not just about the message. It is about who will deliver the message, where he or she delivers the message, how he or she is dressed, what he or she is holding—the list goes on. Every detail should be considered in advance.

Many organizations think, naturally, the people will want to hear from the CEO—or whomever the head honcho is. If the company is in crisis, the CEO should answer to the people, right?

Not so fast. I would argue the following three questions need to be considered before that CEO speaks:

  • Does the CEO have media training?
  • Can the CEO be deeply other regarding?
  • Will the CEO demonstrate sincere empathy?

Lack of media training is probably the simplest problem fix. A lot of agencies can provide it to C-suite folks, and it’s worth the money. Has the CEO been run through drills? Can he or she hold his or her own in a press conference? Do they know where to look when being interviewed on-camera? Do they know how to stand erect for an hour or more without support? If the CEO is to be the face of the company in a crisis, he or she must have media training—it is non-negotiable.

The second question is trickier. To be deeply other regarding, one must be able to remove personal bias and advocate for affected publics. That does not mean the CEO must agree with the position of the affected publics. However, in order for he or she to strategically communicate with the publics, he or she must understand them on a deep level to the point where he or she could argue the publics’ case. This comes from experience, an understanding of ethics and good PR counsel.

Finally, we come to the third and perhaps most important question. Stephanie Danes Smith, former Director of Support for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, said in a 2013 lecture on crisis management that empathy will trump expertise every time with respect to a public’s perception of an organization in crisis. I could not agree with her more.

If the CEO of an organization cannot demonstrate sincere empathy when delivering the strategic message, organizational reputation will suffer. It is because of this element that an organization may need to consider booting the CEO from the media response and finding someone who can be sincere–perhaps a different executive or a spokesperson a bit closer socioeconomically to those actually impacted.

Let’s look at two examples where lack of sincerity and deep other regarding were the downfall of communication efforts.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill

BP CEO Tony Hayward took immense criticism during the company’s response to the infamous 2010 Gulf coast oil spill. Below is an example of one of his many viral interviews:

The issue here: Hayward is not demonstrating sincere empathy. He tries to employ an image repair tactic of mortification. He is apologizing on behalf of the company. However, from the expression on his face to his word choice to his glibness, his apology is fraught with perceived insincerity. No one cares if the CEO isn’t getting in his full eight hours of sleep when their livelihoods are being impacted by a multinational in crisis. Bad form, Tony.

Elk River chemical spill

Freedom Industries President Gary Southern speaks to reporters in the following clip after a chemical spill at a Freedom Industries plant in West Virginia left many in the state without water. The key detail here is “many without water”:

I couldn’t script this any better. Southern’s company is responsible for leaving people without water, and here he is at a press conference moaning about his “long day” and sipping on a deliciously chilled bottle of Aquafina. The issue here is Southern is not being deeply other regarding or sincere. If he was, he would understand the last thing citizens without water want to see is a president complaining, begging for sympathy and drinking water.

Do you think empathy trumps experience? Should BP and Freedom Industries have provided different spokespeople? Or should the CEO or president be the one to respond no matter what? Feel free to comment below.

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