Thursday, February 16, 2017

When the boss is the wrong spokesperson in a crisis

One of the most cited principles of crisis communications is to have the "guy in charge" ... your CEO or senior elected official become the face of your response. Most often this approach will work. People who get to the top drive the agenda, know how to seize an opportunity.

NOTE: skip to bottom to see tips on how to help make that happen

And, there's the other guys (or gals !). The leaders who can't handle a crisis in the right way. When that failure by the CEO become another crisis, things get real dicey for crisis comms practitioners. Their arrogance dooms them to failure because they don't realize they are not prepared or trained in crisis comms.

Few would dispute that the current White House is close to a state of apocalyptic chaos. From a communications perspective, it's one bad day after another. The Press Secretary is a bumbling buffoon ... and today, his boss #POTUS proved again he's totally unhinged and unfit for office. Yet, he's the boss and took his show front stage. 

The reaction was immediate and not flattering

Obviously, the Donald has no ability to stay on message or to look prepared. We shouldn't be surprised. His debates against Hillary Clinton were of the same ilk.

So, if the boss can't be relied on to be prepared for planned events, how can his own people have confidence in how he/she will react in a crisis? Truth is they don't. It's likely the whole thing will be a train wreck.

Which brings me to another boss who made things worse for his company: Edward Burkhardt. One of his train devastated a small Qu├ębec town, killing dozens. That's bad enough. His mishandling of the communications aftermath made the pain even more unbearable for residents and those who lost family and friends in the tragedy.

So, what's a communicator to do? Here's what I wrote a few months ago:

Here are five things that can help:
  1. influencing ... know your principal ... understand his/her motivations, demonstrate how your advice can make THEM look better 
  2. coaching ... if you have the experience, you can coach your boss in how to handle the media and other stakeholders in a crisis, how to stick to the message and avoid improvisation
  3. preparing ... if you do your boss justice, you'll have a solid crisis comms plan ready based on various scenarios, snappy key messages for every audience ...
  4. repairing ... if your boss comes across as unprepared (or worse, uncaring) you'll do your best to show empathy, knowledge and optimism ... and not make things worse (see above re: Trump and Pierson)
  5. learning ... you'll use every opportunity to learn from a crisis or even a well handled issue that didn't make it to the crisis stage ... and show your boss how he/she came out a winner ...
And , here are five more tricks you can try:
T: as in Train ... practice, involve senior leadership in drills or mock scenarios
R: as in Rehearse ... improvising at the podium is not a good thing
U: as in Unite ... bringing people together in a crisis is key ... dividing is unproductive
M: as in Moderate ... your CEO's ego by controlling the setting, providing messaging
P: as in Pace ... a marathon press conference = disaster. Parcel out interventions

You still have the choice to bail if the captain keeps steering the ship towards that iceberg ...

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