In crisis comms, less can be more

Whether you're part of a public or private company, handling executive communication in these post-Enron days is not easy.

Whether you're part of a public or private company, handling executive communication in these post-Enron days is not easy.

Say too much and a crisis can become front and center. Say too little and suddenly your company is on the hot seat for lacking transparency.

The trick is choosing the right approach.

We use an "upside/downside" meter to analyze whether a public response to a crisis or acceptance of a tricky interview is the right course of action for our clients. Even if a CEO wants to take something public, it is important to analyze the potential impact on the company prior to offering a crisis response.

Dell probably used such a meter when deciding not to have its CEO participate in the recent BusinessWeek article, "Dark Days at Dell." There was no upside for CEO Kevin Rollins to be quoted in an article describing problems around the laptop recall, earnings, and an SEC investigation.

Hewlett-Packard had no choice but to have CEO Mark Hurd respond publicly to the board crisis. Coverage of Hurd is benefiting recently from the news that HP has overtaken Dell in market share. Hurd's best upside is to take opportunities that keep the measure of his effectiveness on the business and to steer clear of discussing the scandal.

We call this approach "depriving the story of oxygen." We used this when one of our CEO clients was the victim of an attack on his personal integrity in a major business publication. We recognized that if he responded to the allegations, the discussion would not end there. Instead, he could fan the flames and prompt follow-up pieces.

Our strategy limited his appearances for more than six months to interviews that would allow him to comment only on the business. The strategy worked and the company was not negatively impacted.

Companies that are not as closely watched as the HPs and Dells of the industry obviously need to be aggressive with their communication. Their CEOs need to build relationships with key media and industry watchers to establish the company's strategy and positioning. Even so, they would be wise to use the "upside/downside" meter to weigh all opportunities.

For example, if a reporter wants the CEO to explain how the company can compete in a hotly contested market, there is likely more upside than downside for a well-prepared spokesperson.

However, if that CEO is suing a competitor in that marketplace and wants to take it public, the downside for the company far outweighs the upside.

If the CEO wants to publicize voluntary cuts to his or her compensation package, this may seem like pure upside, but make sure you first can substantiate that the CEO's compensation package is reasonable in light of his or her performance. If it isn't, take a pass.

In many cases, controlled or no communication is the right course of action, at least for a particular slice of time. As we in the PR business often say, "less is more."

Lois Paul is the founder and principal of Lois Paul & Partners.

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