August 27, 2013
The person who you choose to communicate with during a crisis tells the public a lot about how you are handling the crisis.
If you select someone too high on the corporate hierarchy chart, then the public will conclude that the crisis is bigger than they originally thought. If you select someone who is too low, then the public will conclude that you’re not taking the crisis seriously enough. When forced with a similar decision, I generally advise clients to err on the side of going too high rather than too low.
That doesn’t necessarily mean starting with the CEO. Matt Eventoff, a New Jersey-based public speaking coach, advises his clients not to start with the top leader; that way, the CEO can step in if the initial spokesperson botches the response. If you begin with the CEO and he or she mangles the response, Eventoff says, then you can’t move “up” — and you will have to choose a spokesperson lower on the hierarchy chart.
That’s sound logic for most crises, but giant, reputation-defining events — massive oil spills, incidents with casualties, political scandals — may require that the CEO is the spokesperson from the start. The size and scope of a crisis will help you determine the right spokesperson — and generally speaking, the bigger the crisis is, the more senior the spokesperson should be.
Jane Jordan-Meier, author of “The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management,” recommends a two-pronged approach to larger crises that pairs an executive with a technical expert. “Even though the CEO may know less about the details, his or her physical presence sends two powerful messages: ‘I care and I am accountable,’” she says. “The head of operations and/or the key technical staff must also be there to deal with the details.”
That “multiple spokesperson” approach offers another advantage: It allows you to strategically deploy different spokespeople to handle different mediums. You might use a knowledgeable but uncharismatic technical expert to handle print interviews, and a less-knowledgeable but more charismatic leader to handle broadcast interviews.
In addition to using the hierarchy chart as a guide for selecting the right spokesperson, you should choose a person capable of delivering your messages with the compassion and care that a crisis demands.
Jordan-Meier uses a test that she calls the “head/heart principle” to help pick the right spokesperson. The right spokesperson, she says, must avoid the cognitive dissonance that occurs when a representative delivers the right words in the wrong way. Spokespeople should be capable of bringing the head and the heart together, and “must be totally believable when they are expressing concern,” she says.
In his book “Damage Control,” crisis communications pro Eric Dezenhall argues that too many companies underestimate the importance of selecting the right spokesperson.
“Most corporations under siege devote far too much attention to strategy and not enough on the key personalities,” he says. “If given a choice between a thorough plan and a good leader, go with the leader because people rarely separate the event from the personalities that dominate the event.”
Finally, it’s important to note that for crises of limited duration at a specific site, the media may never want to speak to an executive. In those cases, reporters often prefer to talk to people on the ground.