In Times Of Crisis, The CEO Becomes Chief Emergency Officer

emergencyThe text comes in. There’s been an incident. It’s bad. It’s visible. And it’s blowing up the Internet. As CEO, the buck stops in your office. What do you do first? Take a deep breath, then start thinking like a Chief Emergency Officer. The CEO calls the shots and retains ultimate responsibility for the event and its outcome. A major media misstep has left many a CEO wishing they had their job back. A recent study of 100 business crises discovered that 32% of the senior executives involved lost their jobs as a result.

But that doesn’t mean the CEO always has to act as the incident spokesperson. In fact, taking the lead position with the media during a minor event can actually escalate the situation by suggesting a higher level of harm or significance than actually exists.

Remember that how you handle the crisis will ultimately prove more important than the fact that something bad happened. A major crisis is a long tail event; a relatively brief period of frenzied activity followed by an extended recovery. While financial recovery from a crisis may happen in a year, brand recovery may never happen if you fumble the crisis response.

Chief Emergency Officer strategies morph and evolve over time, but sort into five basic categories:

  • Act Immediately
  • Demonstrate Empathy
  • Accept Responsibility
  • Leverage Employees
  • Rescue the Brand

Act Immediately

It’s a 24/7 media world, so companies need to act like it and dial into the social media conversation. Typically, a crisis draws media attention like a laser. According to an FTI Consulting study, companies received 35x the media coverage in the month after a crisis than the month before one. In the case of social media, crises will trigger an astounding 280x the number of company mentions than the prior month.

As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to respond first on the platform where the information was reported first, but be sure to mount an omni-channel communications campaign.

Demonstrate Empathy

The upside of being a CEO: you’re in charge. The downside of being a CEO: you’re a target. Demeanor on camera and messaging tonality can either ameliorate or exacerbate the situation. The easiest way to establish rapport is to be natural–talk straight, avoid corporate jargon, make eye contact, and display some emotion. Something bad just happened. You need to acknowledge it and apologize for it. People will be looking for cues that you care about what happened, and that you care about how it affects them.

Accept Responsibility

When something goes wrong, people want more than a mea culpa. They want to hear—in this order—you’re sorry, you accept responsibility, and you’ll fix it. Whether an incident was the result of an act of omission or commission, doesn’t matter to the parties affected. A recent study discovered companies that apologized slashed post-crisis litigation costs in half.

All the general public knows is that they were injured in some way—lost their health, lost their money, lost their privacy or lost something else they valued. And your company is the reason why. They’re angry and they want to hold you accountable. Any attempt to sidestep responsibility will add fuel to the media fire.

Leverage Employees

How much time and energy has your company put into employee engagement programs? When a crisis strikes, you’ll realize a return on every penny spent.

Provide your staff with key messages so employee evangelists can spread the word, whether it’s during tableside guest interaction or on their personal social media accounts. Associates have a built-in incentive to serve as company ambassadors because a healthy company makes for a healthy paycheck.

Rescue the Brand

The most overlooked aspect of crisis communications is the recovery phase. As the crisis wanes and operations normalize, it’s easy to think things will just go back to normal. Think again. There is now a “new normal”.

The company needs to address the specific harm with a specific remedy. If the environment was damaged, fund a sustainability initiative. If protected classes were overlooked, fund an inclusion initiative. If privacy was compromised, fund identity protection. Affected stakeholders need to see visible proof, over an extended time horizon, with measurable impact to believe that the company has learned its lesson.

Fortunately, a successful recovery can leave a brand in an even stronger market position, having demonstrated a true commitment to the community at large and reaffirming core brand values.

RelatedThe CEO’s Social Media Challenge

Neil Culbertson is the founder of Growth Partners, LLC a consulting firm providing outsourced Chief Marketing Officer services to restaurant companies. Culbertson has advised companies including Burger King, Quizno’s, Shakey’s USA, TGI Friday’s, Red Robin and others on a variety of strategic marketing issues. Laurel Kennedy is the mastermind behind Blink OnDemand Crisis PR™, the world’s only crisis PR planning and response software. Kennedy has more than 25 years of marketing and communications experience, advising companies such as PepsiCo, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Nestle.

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