Friday, 14 November 2014

CEOs are not trusted by the public.  Only 1 in 5 members of the public trust a CEO to tell them the truth.
The results of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer this year were, putting it at best, discouraging.  At worst, as all businesses depend on trust, the findings were alarming.
There is some comfort: these are averages, and there are plenty of examples of CEOs who are great and honest communicators who the public highly trust.
But another finding of the survey should make us pause.   The majority of the public (4 out of 5) expect a CEO to be “front and centre during challenging times”.   The findings should inform our crisis planning.
There is a debate from time to time about who should be the spokesperson in the event of a serious incident.   There are two schools of thought.   One is that it should be the CEO as a matter of leadership and accountability.  The other is that it should be someone in the company with a gift of communicating via the media.  It is said that effectiveness trumps status in a crisis.
At Kenyon, our advice is clear.   If your company is involved in an incident involving human injury or loss of life, the CEO should not only be visible, he or she should be the principal spokesperson.  The absence of the CEO tends to be translated rapidly by the public as “evidence” that the company does not really care.  And in the social media age, the CEO should appear on the media as soon as possible.
The Edelman Trust Barometer’s findings on public expectations supports that view in full.
There are, of course, down sides to this policy.   Media interviews represent high risk.
George Entwistle, the Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation, found himself under fire for his handling of a row about a programme on an historic child abuse scandal involving one of the broadcaster’s highest profile presenters. But his performance during an interview on the BBC’s own Today radio programme hastened his resignation after only 54 days in the job.
Gary Southern was the CEO of a chemical company accused of spilling chemicals into West Virginia’s water supply, leaving 300,000 without water.  There is no suggestion that Mr. Southern was anything other than a highly capable leader.   But he was said to be suffering from pneumonia, and understandably tired and under pressure during a media “scrum” interview.  He was heavily criticised for sipping water from a bottle, whilst discussing a water shortage, and he walked away from the cameras, only to be summoned back by the media.
CEOs manage risk every day of their working lives.  Interview risks can be comfortably managed – but only through preparation and training.
Investing time in preparing for a moment when the future of the company and the CEO is at high risk is a no-brainer.   It is part of the mitigation of the risks of a crisis interview.
If you start regarding yourself as a “natural” who doesn’t need this kind of rehearsal, or “too busy,” loud alarm bells should ring.
There’s no time to do it when a crisis hits.

This blog was first published on the First Alert Blog of Kenyon International Emergency Services, where Kenyon's highly experienced crisis communications directors blog regularly on the topic of communicating in a crisis.   You can follow it here.

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