Stanton: Prescribing the right communications treatment when illness strikes the CEO

Some leaders may reflexively argue that health issues should remain in the personal domain. While understandable, that's an unrealistic proposition in today's world.

Alex Stanton
Alex Stanton

Last week’s announcement that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has been diagnosed with throat cancer once again highlighted the challenges presented when a senior business leader faces a serious health issue. These situations are deeply personal, often fraught with emotion, and bring to the forefront corporate enemy number one: the appearance of uncertainty.

Some leaders may reflexively argue that health issues should remain in the personal domain. While understandable, that’s an unrealistic proposition in today’s world. Communications success in these difficult situations requires a dispassionate balancing of the desire for personal and family privacy and the organization’s obligations and interests. After all, at the end of the day, it will be the organization and its board that will be held accountable for how the issues surrounding a serious illness are handled. 

In most circumstances, a timely and fully transparent approach will best serve the organization and should guide the overall communications strategy. Avoiding a "peel the onion" scenario that unnecessarily extends the life of the news should be a guiding imperative. While the initial disclosure is always a significant event, even in smaller entities, it’s important to keep in mind that this is just the first step, and should mark the commencement of a purposeful communications program. 

There are many variables to consider when developing the proper communications prescription for each situation, including the medical facts, personal considerations, and cultural environment. These issues make following an off-the-shelf plan unwise. A thoughtful approach also requires a degree of scenario planning, which should include:

  • Anticipating related issues, such as the thoroughness of succession planning;
  • Establishing a reliable communication channel-monitoring system to watch for "hot spots" and rumors that crop up;
  • Identifying potential stakeholder sensitivities such as customer concerns, employee confidence, and investor confidence;
  • Formalizing a process for updates as needed.

In addressing a serious executive health issue, the employee audience is arguably the most important constituency. Most potential problems and unhelpful rumors will emanate from within, and external stakeholders will be tuned into this and scrutinize any perceived changes in performance or service.

Fair or unfair, the internal audience will be carefully assessing the leadership during this time, with a practiced eye on the potential impact on the business and their careers. Handled properly, employees will find motivation and inspiration. "Seeing is believing" at this critical juncture, so it is also important to consider the executive’s visibility, within reason of course. Expectations will be based on past practice, and this should be factored into the plan. It’s possible that some communication channels may not work well, or won’t be feasible, during treatment. Employing different channels or increasing the frequency of touch points can help avoid the perception of a vacuum.

While health issues affecting the most high-profile CEOs and companies are likely to receive prominent national media coverage, this doesn’t mean other businesses are immune from controversy when illness strikes. In fact, the resulting issues can be equally acute for a closely-held or family-owned corporation or nonprofit organization because these developments can feel intensely personal and tactile in smaller settings. The manner in which communications addresses these challenges can significantly impact the ability of the organization to operate effectively during this period. 

No amount of planning and careful execution can completely remove the uncertainty that comes with news that one of the leaders of an organization has been diagnosed with a serious illness. However, a thoughtful, transparent, and steady approach is the right PR prescription for the health of the organization. 

Alex Stanton is CEO of Stanton Public Relations & Marketing, a New York-based communications firm.

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