In media training and crisis communications training, there are many debates about who should speak for your organization in a crisis. Here are three common arguments and what you should consider as a crisis unfolds.
Argument 1: The CEO should always be the spokesman
A CEO who wants to be the only voice is destined for failure. In a crisis, the CEO should be:
- Managing the crisis
- Managing the business operations
This is especially true in the first hours of a crisis, when information is just becoming available.
In a severe crisis involving injuries or fatalities, the CEO becomes the face of the organization’s compassion. Even then, the CEO as a spokesman might come several hours into the crisis. In the first hour, when a statement should be made, the CEO is often busy with other issues.
Also, if a CEO misspeaks early in the crisis, he or she loses credibility and undermines the reputation of the organization. If someone else misspeaks early in the crisis, the CEO can step in to clarify the facts and becomes the hero figure.
Remember BP’s CEO Tony Hayward, who uttered, “I want my life back.” That line led to his being fired as CEO.
Argument 2: The PR person should always be the spokesman
The public relations person is an excellent choice as representative in the first hour of the crisis when reporters might be just arriving, but doesn’t have to be the lone voice throughout a crisis.
The PR person should be a member of the crisis management team and should lead the crisis communications team.
A “First Critical Statement” should be in every crisis communications plan. When few facts are known, it allows the PR person to:
- Acknowledge the crisis
- Provide basic facts
- Say something quotable, while promising more information at a future briefing
Argument 3: A variety of people should serve as spokespeople
My recommendation is that numerous people should be media trained as spokespeople. In a crisis, the PR person should speak during the first hour of the crisis. By the end of the second hour of the crisis, a subject matter expert should be your representative. If needed, the subject matter expert can remain as spokesman if the crisis is ongoing. The final news briefing of the day may be the best time to feature the CEO as spokesman.
Think of your selection process in the way that sports teams operate. You have stars as well as strong people on the bench, ready to step in as needed.
Media training helps identify your star players and secondary players. Most of all, never let anyone speak without intensive training. Journalists play hardball. Don’t send out an untrained person with youth league skills.