City & Corporate: US CEOs conquer crisis stage fright

Reputational risk is widely recognised as one of the major threats faced by international businesses. It seems that no matter how careful a group may be, there will always be times when it gets into trouble.

The size and complexity of operations, and the range of interest groups with which the business is in contact, mean quality control will always be a problem.

As Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton is fond of saying: 'The one certainty in business is that things will go wrong.'

Whose responsibility is it to put things right? According to Burson Marsteller it is the chief executive. Dr Leslie Gaines-Ross, the agency's head of research, says the burden of responsibility for restoring reputation rests two thirds with the chief executive and one third with the rest of the board. The implication is that only the person at the top has the credibility to be believed. He or she personifies the company. People lower down the pecking order, be they internal or external spokesmen, never carry the same authority.

The problem arises because CEOs, particularly in the UK, find communication difficult - not because they are inarticulate, but because there is something about the public stage that unnerves them. Revenue & Customs chairman David Varney once worried (while chairman of mobile giant mmO2) that while today's chief executives require communications skills, they are typically not given the training.

Yet it is so different in America. The one lasting impression of US business leaders is not their competence - by and large they are as inefficient as everyone else and much more bureaucratic - but their smoothness. They look the part, they sound the part and they do it much better. It is the one thing our business leaders could learn from across the Atlantic.

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