Choosing the right spokesperson is always important, especially in a crisis. While it’s easy to just assume this is the CEO’s role, this is one of four myths of crisis management leadership.
Myth 1: Only the CEO can speak for the organization
The CEO absolutely should be visible and speak when there is a crisis, particularly to demonstrate compassion and commitment to action. But that’s very different from being the sole “official spokesperson.”
Former BP boss Tony Hayward became the 24/7 spokesman, which allowed the media to personalise every tactical setback. It’s a poor use of top executive time and status, and the stress and pressure can lead to lead to damaging gaffes, as the hapless Mr Hayward proved. The reality is that not every senior executive has the skills and personality to carry the whole burden of crisis communication.
Myth 2: There must be only one spokesperson
The idea of “speaking with one voice” is often misinterpreted to mean only one person should speak. One voice means consistency of message, not only one spokesperson.
It’s OK to have different spokespersons, especially when it comes to detailed technical or operational areas and provided that’s understood by the media. This also allows the CEO to be held “in reserve” to step in if things go wrong. The key to success in a crisis is not the number of spokespersons, but having one voice—calm, consistent and confident.
Myth 3: Legal counsel should determine what gets said
Of course, legitimate legal risks should not be ignored, but these must be weighed against other considerations such as financial, competitive and customer risk, as well as risk to reputation.
Sadly, it is well-known that an organization can win in the court of law and lose in the court of public opinion. Professor Daniel Diermeier says: “Good crisis management teams have a strong, opinionated general counsel, while poor crisis management teams are run by the general counsel.”
Myth 4: The CEO must be on the spot to take charge
The CEO must be visible during a crisis, but that does not necessarily mean being on the spot to drive the operational response. After the Bhopal disaster, Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson impetuously flew to India and was promptly arrested, leaving the company leaderless at a critical time.
By contrast, Exxon boss Lawrence Rawl famously failed to visit Alaska immediately after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster and said nothing for six days. As one expert later concluded, he was right to stay put, but wrong to stay silent.
These are complex problems and these four myths show how easy it is to get it wrong.