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Posted on 06.10.2010

When It “Hits the Fan” Is the CEO the Best Spokesperson?

Over the years, I’ve had some clients take the position that we shouldn’t use their company CEO as a spokesperson during a crisis.  “We need to shield him/her from all the negative media coverage,” I’ve frequently heard.

And I remember when first learning the PR business, I took a media training course from a nationally renowned firm where they preached that you should do everything possible to preserve the firewall around the CEO. “Don’t put the CEO out there unless absolutely necessary because that implies the situation has escalated to a level that involves the senior leadership,” was the prevailing mantra.  But that was before the proliferation of citizen journalists and subject-expert bloggers created an era of transparency. Today, the public expects an almost immediate response from corporate America and its CEOs, and when they don’t get it, they go viral with their disappointment and outrage.  When a company fails its stakeholders, they expect leadership to own up to it, and they want the message delivered by someone at the top. By addressing a crisis directly in an open and transparent manner, CEOs have the opportunity to build credibility or perhaps recast events in a different life.  That said, there may be times when a CEO is not the most appropriate spokesperson.  For example:
  • Local issues should stay local – there is no advantage to unnecessarily elevating the attention level
  • Sometimes it’s better to defer to a subject matter expert on a complex matter
  • If your CEO is a bad communicator or, even worse, a loose cannon – don’t risk it
  • While most issues of substance demand a high level response, there may be issues that aren’t fair to attend to your CEO (i.e., politics, unrelated criminal matters, certain legal issues, etc.)
Let’s say it’s a new CEO who’s been brought in to mop up a corporate mess.  Should the CEO step out there and take ownership even though she only inherited the problem and is, in no way, culpable?  On the one hand, why taint the new leader with the fallout from mistakes made by a former CEO who may have already taken the hit by being asked to resign?  On the other hand, if the new CEO brings a renewed ethical approach, improved business practices and a commitment to fix what’s broken, why wouldn’t you want to identify the new person with the company’s promise to make things right? The question of whether or not to bring in your CEO to either defend or apologize for a company’s actions is sometimes a tough one, and the answer is rife with caveats.  As with most things in PR, there is no “one size fits all” answer.  The right thing to do depends on the circumstances and the players involved. Proceed with care.

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