Welch: Exec's humanity is key in crisis response

Author and journalist Suzy Welch told attendees of PRWeek's Influencer Summit on Wednesday that authenticity is vital to communications efforts, whether joining a conversation or taking a company or its executives out of the spotlight.

NEW YORK: Author and journalist Suzy Welch told attendees of PRWeek's Influencer Summit on Wednesday morning that authenticity is vital to communications efforts, whether joining a conversation or taking a company or its executives out of the spotlight.

“Likeability really matters; the more real you are, the more your message is going to be heard and listened to,” she said.

Welch added that timing is everything when positioning an organization's executives as thought leaders. Yet many communications professionals push for this status prematurely.

“If you're coming in, trying to be a thought or idea leader, and you don't have the results to back it up, you're just beating against the wind,” Welch explained. “And it backfires later, because when you actually have something to talk about, you already have the stink on you from having tried to sell yourself too soon.”

Along with timing, Welch added that a company's message must stand out. Amazon's Sunday reveal on 60 Minutes about “Amazon Prime Air” – aerial drones touted as being able to get packages into customers' hands in less than a half-hour – was a groundbreaking example of a CEO positioning a unique message to the public, she said.

“[Amazon founder and CEO] Jeff Bezos got everybody talking about Amazon right before the Christmas shopping season,” she said. “It's one of the best PR moves I have ever seen because it is so new and paradigm-breaking.”

When facing a crisis, the main priority is to get the executives out of the conversation with minimal collateral damage to the brand and its employees. The first step is to inform the CEO how the process will play out, which Welch likened to talking to a teenager about a breakup.

“When a teenager is going through their first breakup, you already know the end of the story, and your job as a parent is to be the bearer of bad news,” she said. “They are crying, but you have to tell them how it is going to go. A lot of times they won't listen to you.”

During a crisis, a communications professional must alert executives that the situation is going to be much worse than expected, that there are no secrets, and that the organization will be portrayed in the worst possible light, even by reporters and outlets seen as allies. Welch said a communications pro must also be clear that someone is going to be fired, but humanity is a key asset.

“When it all comes down to it, a CEO has to be able to say, ‘I don't know; I screwed up,'” she said. “And if your CEO is not likeable or authentic, even after a comms person has made the argument for why this is an important asset, then they have to go for decency.”

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