Media & Crisis Communications – The role of the CEO

You’ve drilled. You’ve done your homework.

Your communications and senior management team have a well-formulated crisis plan. Everyone knows their roles and is prepared to take the right steps toward containing and getting ahead of the crisis.

When the real crisis hits however, too many companies are stymied by indecision and second-guessing. Too many CEO’s won’t trust that carefully crafted plan to steer the organization forward. What’s behind all the additional road-blocks and inaction that adds precious hours, days and even weeks to your response time?

It may be that your crisis plan is missing a key ingredient: an on-going and clearly defined role for your CEO.

Don’t underestimate the amount of pressure a real crisis will bring to bear on the head of the team. The real role of the CEO, beyond making sure those in authority have what they need to make quick and meaningful decisions and being a primary voice in calming key stakeholders, will be to make sure everyone knows of and continues on the right road toward your carefully planned recovery.

Internal audiences, in particular, feel they have the right to know what’s going on: the bad as well as the good. They’re right. And no one is better suited than the CEO to making sure those lines of communication are and remain open through a crisis.

So what can you do to make sure your CEO is in the right role during a time of crisis? Here are five step checklist to make sure your CEO stays on track to play a central communications role:

    Your CEO’s key role must not be limited to operational decisions in time of crisis. Make sure your CEO doesn’t become bogged down in the detail of operational functions, forcing him or her to delegate communication to others. Institute a formal process for CEO communication with both internal and external key audiences. Make it a priority and, as soon as possible, make your CEO a source for information with those key stakeholders.
    Yes, you’ll want to make sure there’s a limited number of spokespeople at a time of crisis, but there’s no need for your CEO or your PIO (public information officer) to be the only source of information. He or she cannot and will not be on the job 24/7, so make sure there are alternatives and that there’s a mechanism for keeping messages well coordinated.
    No one is better positioned to frame the crisis and its response than your CEO for external, but even more importantly, internal audiences. Those audiences need to know that the crisis is fully recognized and they must hear how the company’s core values align with your crisis response. Make sure your own employees are on board and understanding what is taking place and why.
    Temporary websites, hotlines and media outreach are proven methods of keeping the media and the public informed during a crisis. Make sure your CEO messages can be heard and read through all sources. Put your CEO in the forefront of response, and position your company as the go-to resource for the crisis as early as possible.
    Fight the very natural inclination to tighten the circle and issue pronouncements from the top without interaction and input. Answer the need for those impacted by the crisis, both internally and externally, to have a voice in the outcome of your next moves and to know they’re listened to. Allow some kind of on-line or in person feedback mechanism to help make sure your CEO doesn’t become isolated from those most immediately impacted.

Aileen Pincus is a former reporter,U.S. Senate executive staffer, and public relations executive, who now provides crisis and media training, as well as presentation and speech training, as president of her own communications firm in Maryland. She can be reached or at (301) 938-6000.

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