6 Tips for Improving a CEO’s Reputation Among Employees During a Crisis

CEOs often have to make tough decisions involving mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, salary freezes and more. Certain events, even when they are the best decision for the long-term health of the company, can generate widespread fallout, including damaging the reputation of the CEO.

Communications consultants David Johnson and Don Middleberg offer the following tips to help CEOs handle negative reputational issues:


  1. Review social media to determine where the problem is coming from (employee, media, vendor or customer).
  2. Evaluate whether your firm has been impacted by the negativity and gauge the level of the situation.
  3. Determine whether the complaints or comments are valid.
  4. If the situation is damaging, respond publicly and quickly; if not, do not respond publicly because you could make the situation worse.
  5. If a singular employee is responsible for unwarranted discontent, meet with that person and remove him or her from the company.
  6. Spend just as much, if not more, time communicating with employees as you do with outside parties. Conduct frequent meetings, ranging from large town hall-style to small groups and one-on-one discussions, and invite questions.

Bad publicity, either internally, externally or both, can affect the culture of an entire company, including hurting employee morale and productivity. There is only one way for a CEO to handle a negative situation, and that’s with “full transparency,” says Middleberg, CEO of Middleberg Communications. “If the company is transparent in everything it does and communicates well with employees, negative situations will be less likely to escalate.”

Your employees hear and see the media, so Johnson cautions CEOs to monitor the company culture. “If you always communicate the company vision and are transparent regarding where the company is going and why certain actions are being taken, employees will get their information from you rather than the press, and bad publicity will quickly die down.”

Consider Glassdoor’s latest rankings of CEOs with the worst reputations. While this is only one organization’s purview, it serves as a great jumping off point to pose the question: During a negative publicity situation, how well do you communicate with your employees?

CEOs today, while they don’t carry the title, are the chief communications officers of the firm, and need to be public and visible, Middleberg feels. “Employees and others have to understand who their leaders are and what they’re about,” Middleberg says. “If you’re a good guy, you need to have that come across in a public way.”

Mary Barra, who joined GM as CEO in January and has been dealing with a firestorm of bad publicity ever since as a result of a recall debacle, “has done an excellent job of communicating with employees about the ongoing situation,” says Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision. “She related as a mother and long-term employee of GM. She gave the employees a feeling of ownership of where the company was going and what was being done.”

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