Cringe-worthy social media gaffes and far-worse misdoings by company execs. Negative customer reviews gone viral. The intersection of politics and your C-suite. Customers allegedly harmed by your products. Plus, pandemics, supply-chain breakdowns, and all the unforeseen shakeups of life as we know it.
Face it, CEOs: Crises happen. If you’re not leading your organization through or past a crisis right now, chances are that you’re anticipating one that could happen anytime.
Senior Executive Media recently spoke with communications leaders, as well as a veteran crisis-comms pro who jumped to a CEO role, to identify key traits CEOs would be wise to adopt to better handle the next crisis they face. If you’re lacking, work with your executive coach to develop these skills in 2022 before you’re tested:
1. They lead with empathy during a crisis. “When people are suffering through terrible things, the last thing they want to think about is how [your company] may be contributing to their psychological distress,” says Rodney Ferguson, CEO and president of Winrock International, a nonprofit organization operating in 40 countries. He spent 20 years serving as one of the country’s leading communications consultants in the nonprofit sector.
In his former life, Ferguson dealt with a variety of clients’ corporate crises — corruption, health and safety matters, leadership and corporate wrongdoing. He helped Seton Hall University manage the aftermath of the Boland Hall fire in 2000, one of the deadliest college fires in recent U.S. history. Ferguson also assisted a northeastern liberal arts college when one of its star professors was accused of plagiarism, denied the allegations and attempted to face down the administration. (The university president stood firm, and the professor backed down.) He also helped a major foundation when it discovered part of its endowment was invested in some questionable positions.
“Now l am the person who, at the end of the day, is responsible for navigating through the crisis — not just advising the person,” he says. “My former life has served me exceedingly well. I’ve learned lessons and try to apply them.”
Ferguson is leading with empathy through the COVID-19 pandemic as he deals with the psychological well-being, health and safety of 1,000 employees worldwide. “Our mantra at Winrock is that the health and wellness of staff are always the paramount variables—always,” he says.
“We took several steps to address employee well-being during the COVID crisis. We expanded access to mental health counseling; we instituted daily meditation sessions open via video to all employees; we identified employees who were dealing with especially acute family or personal situations and gave them additional time off to deal with those issues. And I persuaded our board to provide additional financial support to mitigate financial pressures brought on by the pandemic, which helped us maintain employment for almost all of our staff.
“That’s just a few of the many actions we took to move us through the crisis — and, collectively, they worked, as we are coming out of it financially and programmatically healthy.”
2. They seek counsel and facts in a crisis. “Know when you’re not the expert,” says Anna Hughes, senior director of global communications at BSA | The Software Alliance. Hughes honed her crisis communications skills advising clients worldwide as a PR agency pro. “It’s a huge trap for a CEO to think they know more than any of their deputies.”
She recalls an international telecom client, under serious scrutiny, that ignored Hughes’ counsel on how to prepare for media interviews with U.S. journalists who were guaranteed to ask tough questions. The executive insisted they could successfully navigate media interviews by sticking to a script and ignoring questions they didn’t want to discuss.
“Of course, the only interview questions asked were the ones that the executive didn’t want to discuss,” Hughes says. “Now, in addition to the crisis we were dealing with, we had some pretty negative press and quotes to go along with it.”
“Be open and transparent with investigators and regulators. Look at them more as partners, not adversaries,” Ferguson says.
A recent investigation of one of Winrock’s projects represented a potential crisis for the organization, Ferguson reveals. But when Winrock and fellow leaders embraced, rather than fought, findings as an opportunity to improve operations by beefing up its compliance and oversight function, it turned into a win.
“We decided to present our new structure to our client as an example of our commitment to being best-in-class,” he says. “That proactive approach, and staying in touch with our funders on compliance issues rather than waiting until there was a problem, has created a climate of trust between us and them.”
3. They take the heat during a crisis. A company’s CEO, not its communications pros, should be the one to deliver critical information to staff, partners and the media and public. “Too many CEOs try to leave hard and dirty parts to subordinates. It never works,” says Ferguson. “There really needs to be just one voice for the organization, and it has to be the CEO.”
Indeed, beware the notion of a “fixer” who can take the spotlight and make the crisis go away. “That person becomes the story when you hire them,” warns Nick Ludlum, senior vice president and chief communications officer for CTIA, a trade association representing U.S. wireless communication firms. “Beware people who build their reputations on the backs of other people’s really bad days. There are no magic tricks to handling a crisis, and advice on ‘how to spin or massage this’ is terrible. It’s important to have a really clear sense of your objectives. Know what you value, and protect that.”
4. They’re prepared for crises. For many CEOs and their communications leads, that likely means an annual round of scenario planning to consider what could go wrong and how to react to it.
But experienced leaders know that more tangible prep will better position them to react to almost any crisis, anticipated or not: “You need a crisis plan that delineates responsibility: Who is the spokesperson? Who is the person who leads the investigation? What are the rules/terms of engagement? Who deals with the clients?” Ferguson says. “Trying to game out different scenarios has less utility than things such as establishing the chain of command; creating a phone tree so that you’re not fumbling around for phone numbers; and knowing the basic stuff that you really must have in your desk drawer/on the nightstand at home.”
Ferguson keeps a list of all of his senior team’s mobile numbers, their primary and secondary emails and the contact information for emergency-response partners for evacuations.
“I’ve had to oversee three evacuation efforts since I’ve been at Winrock, and, given the nature of our work and the places we do it, those aren’t likely to be the last,” he says.