Should a CEO be a company's primary spokesperson during a crisis?

Chris Gidez of Hill & Knowlton and Mike Lawrence of Cone debate whether or not a company's CEO should serve as the primary spokesperson during a crisis.


Chris Gidez Head of US crisis/issues management group, Hill & Knowlton
Has worked with companies such as Chevron and Deloitte

Yes, but only if the CEO is capable of connecting with stakeholders in a compelling, credible manner.

In theory, the CEO is expected to be the voice of reassurance and trust amid crisis. But a crisis is not the time to test whether the CEO is up to the task. Advance preparation is critical.

As Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, was fond of saying, "When preparing for a crisis, it is instructive to recall that Noah started building the ark before it began to rain."

Since the beginning of the year, we have seen at least three instances where CEOs were less than effective. In the midst of the Toyota recall, Akio Toyoda made a courageous effort to be the face and voice of the company; but his grasp of the English language and his understanding of American cultural and media expectations were insufficient.

More recently, both BP's CEO Tony Hayward and chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg stumbled badly with various comments, which resulted in a general (and somewhat unfair) "don't they get it?" reaction from the media and public.

The lesson is not to shield CEOs from the public. Rather, it is to ensure they are fully prepared to address the public. And the importance of good prep work is even more critical when the CEO is not familiar with our unique culture and media.

It would be no different if an American CEO were to travel to Indonesia, India, Spain, Korea, or any other country and expect to win the hearts and minds of the media and the public without any knowledge of the host country.

Fundamentally, it comes down to effective communications skills. I'd argue that Massey Energy's CEO Don Blankenship failed miserably as a communicator during the Upper Big Branch mine disaster earlier this year. And he's as American as they come.

The proper answer to the question is the right spokesperson for a crisis is the person who - through title, talent, and temperament - is best capable of connecting emotionally and rationally with the organization's primary stakeholders.


Mike Lawrence EVP and chief reputation officer, Cone
Has counseled companies such as Whole Foods, Starbucks, and Mattel

The CEO is a company's most powerful, authoritative voice. Despite that - in fact because of it - CEOs shouldn't serve as primary spokespeople in a crisis. Using the CEO in such a repetitive communications role will dilute his or her impact in the same way an overexposed elected official loses credibility.

In addition, if CEOs spend significant time interacting with media it becomes hard to believe they are fulfilling the primary responsibility of overseeing efforts to resolve a crisis.

It is more appropriate to use a company executive one or two positions below as a primary spokesperson. This official should be an executive team member, have direct knowledge of what's underway to mitigate the crisis, and have undergone training to handle communications in sensitive situations. As a result, he or she should be a credible voice with stakeholders and be equipped to deliver timely information and respond to challenging queries.

This isn't to suggest the CEO should remain aloof. Many crises can pose significant risks to the bottom line, reputation, or both, so they demand a clear demonstration of lead-ership and empathy from the head of the organization. In such situations, the CEO should be part of the communications process through a periodic public briefing/news conference.

The CEO should also be the one to disclose news of any major shift in the way the company is handling the crisis. He or she should be seen in the field assessing what is happening, meeting with and listening to people who have been affected. This latter piece is critical to the communications process and is best suited to the CEO's title and leadership position.

The reality is that each organization is different and the role of the CEO needs to be fine-tuned accordingly. For example, small companies or community-based organizations may need to use their CEOs more aggressively in communications. When a crisis strikes, it's important to evaluate the nature of the issue, its potential impact, and audience expectations to determine how to best calibrate the role of the CEO.

PRWeek's View
Though an organization's CEO should be visible during a crisis to make crucial announcements, it is often better to have another executive serve as the primary spokesperson so that the CEO can concentrate on the task at hand.

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