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Executive decision: Persuading CEOs to do the right thing during a crisis


September 14, 2009

By Joan Gladstone, APR, Fellow PRSA
 
While crisis plans offer strategies, processes and procedures to set a course of action, there is always an underlying human element. The single most important factor in mitigating the depth and breadth of a crisis, and preserving the organization’s reputation over the long term, is the attitude of the person at the top.
 
Reputations are both resilient (if you are a good person) and fragile (if you are an elitist or a braggart), says reputation communications expert Peter Morrissey, president and CEO of Morrissey & Company in Boston.
 
One of the toughest challenges that a senior PR practitioner will face is persuading the CEO to do the right thing in a crisis.
 
“It is not unusual for a CEO to have a siege mentality during a crisis,” says public affairs and issues management veteran David Marriott, partner, Gogerty Marriott, in Seattle. “You also see a short-term focus and the feeling of a loss of control. Any CEO who succumbs to these natural tendencies risks losing the respect of his or her peers and colleagues, which can be extremely damaging to the organization.”
 
Here are seven attitudes that can prevent a swift and effective crisis response and make matters worse:
 
• What crisis? The CEO ignores blatant red flags.
• No one will find out. The CEO thinks it is impossible for the bad news to leak out.
• It will blow over. The CEO knows a problem is brewing but thinks that it will have little impact.
• I will handle it. This CEO is used to solving problems alone. “I know Fred Jones at The Wall Street Journal. I’ll give him a call. He’ll give us a fair shake.”
• Our attorneys will handle it. “This is not a PR problem. Stay out of it.”
• I’m unavailable. The overwhelmed CEO retreats into his or her office or escapes to an exotic vacation without cell phone service.
• The media is out to get us. This CEO has had negative experiences dealing with reporters and believes there’s nothing that anyone can do to influence the outcome.
 
How can you persuade your CEO to take the best course of action before the crisis gets out of control? When faced with a CEO who is reluctant to take your advice, consider three ways to inspire confidence and trust.
 
Collaborate with influentials
Because most crises have legal implications, CEOs almost always consult with attorneys before doing anything else. PR professionals have expressed frustration when they believed that attorneys were too cautious, encouraged CEOs to offer “no comment” as an answer or otherwise prevented implementing crisis communications strategies. Ease the CEO’s mind by requesting attorney input on all messaging, news releases or FAQs.
 
It’s a good idea to collaborate with attorneys from the very beginning.
 
“We meet with legal counsel without the client being present,” says Marriott. “We usually get an honest assessment of the issue and the opportunities. Then, the attorneys and our team will meet with the client together and present a unified front in terms of our recommendations.”
 
Other CEO influentials are longtime executives, members of the board of directors and risk managers. Risk managers serve public agencies and corporations and supervise the legal, insurance and financial implications of workplace  issues.
 
Risk managers are potential allies to support your efforts to develop a crisis communications plan, train spokespeople and ensure that you are at the table when issues threaten to escalate into full-blown crises.
 
Make the potential crisis tangible
I was retained by a company that was quietly being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Over the many months that the DOJ collected evidence, the company’s lead attorney tried to persuade the CEO to develop a crisis plan. The CEO claimed that the company had done nothing wrong. He didn’t feel threatened by the investigation.
 
The attorney and I met to brainstorm ways to persuade the CEO to take the impending lawsuit more seriously. Our idea: I would write a mock news release with the headline “DOJ Sues X Company for $30 Million.” 
 
The next morning, I dropped the news release off at the CEO’s and president’s offices. After nearly causing pandemonium, I was asked to start working on a crisis plan immediately — which we implemented a few months later when the settlement was announced.
 
If this approach is too dramatic for your taste, then use facts and logic to sway the CEO to adopt a crisis communications strategy.
 
“Show the CEO similar cases, research or polling information that shows them what the outcome could be if they continue on the course they are going,” says Morrissey. “Have your facts correct. Tell them things they do not know. Prepare them for worst-case scenarios. Do not sugarcoat [the situation].”
 
Be empathetic
“The long-term impact of how the CEO handles events while under extreme pressure is huge,” Marriott says. “CEOs who perform well can buoy morale, allay fears, calm nerves and more solidly bind an organization together and make it stronger as a result.” 
 
One of the first rules of crisis communications is to express sincere empathy toward those who are affected. To inspire the CEO to demonstrate empathy, be empathetic yourself. Show that you understand the CEO’s concerns and fears about the crisis.
 
I worked with a chemical manufacturer who learned that an underground pipe was leaking perchlorate into the soil. A slew of state and federal agencies investigated to determine whether this was an inadvertent or deliberate mistake. If the company was found guilty of negligence, then the president risked being sentenced to prison.
 
After appearing anxious in our first meetings, the president soon relaxed. While I remained honest about the potential outcomes, I calmly asked questions and presented initial recommendations with compassion. The president later said that my demeanor, coupled with the sound crisis plan that the attorneys and I developed, soothed many of his fears. Fortunately, the matter was settled and did not receive media attention. I remained one of his confidants until his retirement.
 
Forge a bond
If there is a bright side to crisis communications, then it is the unique bond that we form with CEOs after managing crises together. By aligning with influentials, clearly supporting recommendations with facts and demonstrating that we care about the person at the top as well as the organization, we earn the role of being valued, trusted advisers that CEOs will rely on in good times and in bad times. 
 
Joan Gladstone, APR, Fellow PRSA, is president and CEO of Gladstone International, a crisis communications firm based in Laguna Beach, Calif., and assistant professor of public relations and advertising for Chapman University. She is also the author of “Starting and Growing Your Own PR Firm,” published by PRSA.

Copyright © 2009 PRSA. All rights reserved.



Comments

Crystal L. Kendrick says:

Nice article. Good information. Easy to read. Thanks for sharing. Crystal Kendrick www.thevoiceofyourcustomer.com

September 14, 2009

Laura Bower, APR says:

Great ideas! But what do you do if you're in a "shoot the messenger" position? The CEO is in siege mode, and the media is the enemy. Everyone who doesn't agree is not a "team player." How do you tell him the truth, without becoming the scapegoat for delivering bad news and ostracizing yourself in the process?

September 17, 2009

Tom Eppes says:

Very nice job, Joan. Everyone should keep this article handy, providing it to untested CEOs at the outset of a potential crisis.

September 17, 2009

Timothy S. Penning, Ph.D., APR says:

Nice piece. I'll be using in my PR Cases and Management class during the crisis section next time.

November 21, 2013

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