Jan Gusich of AKHIA Public Relations and Marketing Communications, Ohio discusses when to put the CEO out front

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Whether you’re facing a crisis or just everyday communications, it’s always important that the public is getting a regular look at the face of the company—the CEO.

By getting in front of the public from time to time—or as often as possible—the CEO can help shape the perception of the organization for the better, because it’s no secret that the image some people have of a “CEO” can skew toward Scrooge McDuck. And that’s not you, and it’s not your company.

But if the CEO isn’t comfortable in front of crowds or cameras, this strategy can also be disastrous — and you may need to consider letting someone else be your company’s face — especially during a crisis.

Take, for instance, the Elk River chemical spill and subsequent water contamination crisis that occurred in West Virginia in January. This was a major crisis that affected thousands of people – and one of the culpable parties, Freedom Industries, bungled their handling of the crisis. It was obvious from the get-go that the Freedom Industries CEO was not the appropriate spokesperson – in addition to making several mistakes, he did not take up the role as a leader; he wasn’t commanding; and he was unable to muster confidence and trust in his company. In this case, a next in command would have been a better choice.

It’s always best to have the CEO or president as spokesperson, but it’s also acceptable to have another executive if they can’t adequately fill that role. Whoever is out front must appear approachable, warm, compassionate, and human. By floundering in front of the camera, the company’s image suffers. Sometimes media training is all it takes. Coached by an expert, your CEO may be able to adapt – but it’s not a guarantee.

In the case of crisis communication, it’s more critical that the person you put in the spotlight is able to convey that said crisis is being taken seriously at the highest levels of your organization. You are signaling an authoritative response from your company in that you’re taking full ownership of the crisis — credibility outweighs rank.

And it’s important not to simply trot out the CEO when a crisis does happen. Your communications strategy should involve regular public appearances for the CEO, even when there is no crisis. If customers and stakeholders see the CEO as consistently approachable, hearing from the CEO during a crisis won’t seem so rehearsed.

So get the CEO out there. It’s a critical part of a strategic, holistic crisis communications plan.

 

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