Executives face to face, Challenges

When a corporate crisis strikes, crisis communications is crucial for the survival of any company. In these turbulent times, the CEO must step up and take charge as the primary spokesperson. Unfortunately, countless examples of public relations disasters indicate that the CEO might not always be prepared to be the crisis communicator. Because even the smallest mistake in a crisis response can leave a lasting mark on a company, it’s helpful to have a few tips handy when preparing for the worst. Here are our tips for how CEOs can become crisis communications pros (while also keeping in mind that PR agencies aren’t “spin doctors” and we generally advocate against such practices).

1. Get Professional Media Training

Although CEOs are used to communicating everyday with innumerable stakeholders, they might not be in the habit of talking to the press without days, or even weeks, of preparation. But in times of crisis, the stakes are so high that the key decision-maker needs to own up for the company’s actions on the spot – not in a few days or weeks. No one can ever be fully prepared to react to every single question a journalist will ask, but professional media training can teach the CEO how to respond to charged questions in the best way possible.

2. Plan for the Worst

Plan, plan, plan. As we all know, bad things happen even to the best of companies. In order to calm all parties affected by the sudden crisis, the CEO will have to convey that the company is acting immediately to fix the crisis. The CEO will only be able to earn back trust and confidence when there’s an actual game plan ready to go.

3. Build a Crisis Communications Team

Not even the best CEO can do it all alone. A company will need to rely on a skillful crisis communications team that takes charge behind the scenes, such as issuing the initial statement to the press, responding on social media channels, and following up on a long-term response plan once the storm has passed. As they say, many hands make light work. Also, no one said the public relations are easy.

4. Learn from Other CEOs’ Mistakes

Think back on the innumerable times you’ve seen another executive mess up. You do not want to avoid responsibility, for example, like Corey duBrowa, Starbucks’ senior VP of communications, who deleted his Twitter account when the company’s #racetogether campaign caused serious backlash online. Or come across as insensitive, like when former BP CEO Tony Hayward said in an interview that he “would like his life back” in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that killed 11 people. Learning from these types of mistakes will help you better your response.

5. Know What Constitutes an Actual Crisis

This might seem self-evident, but history has proved otherwise: do not rally the troops when a reporter has said something bad about the company or misquoted the words of a spokesperson. In these cases, the intervention of the CEO can fuel the issue instead of solving it. The CEO should only speak out when a situation has the potential to heavily disrupt or end daily business operations. Ensure that everyone in the organization has a mutual understanding of what a real crisis is, and what the subsequent escalation procedures are.

Crises generally leave only a small window of opportunity to respond the right way. Therefore preparation in advance of a potential crisis will go a long way to safeguard your company’s reputation.


This post was first published by Patricia de Groot on March Communications’ blog PR Nonsense.