Please CEOs, do not create your own crises

Reputations take careful crating and building. Too often though it is the words or actions of senior team members that rapidly undo all the hard work. But do not assume they will know how they can inflict damage themselves. Help them avoid mistakes by telling them!

Communications may be considered seriously by senior teams in organisations but they do not always have the experience that goes with that belief. Directors and Chief Executives may come from banking, finance, accountancy and the law but few come from a communications background. Therefore the direct experience may be lacking. This, combined with so many competing priorities, may mean that they do not consider comms from the outset.

It is up to communications teams to help senior teams avoid the mistakes, not just to clear up after them. This means building trust and demonstrating their expertise, not just assuming it.

They need to be able to point out the potential pitfalls. These could include:

Not taking the advice on offer – this may seem a little self-serving to start with but leaders may need to be convinced that there are teams worth talking to and that they don’t have to do it all themselves. This can often be difficult to convey as it requires an acceptance on a leader’s part that self-improvement may be required. But good leadership should include an appreciation of such things and being open to training that may be of use to them as well. Trust also needs to be earned as well, it cannot be automatically assumed. The advice could be internal, external, political, covering any aspect of communications and engagement.Promise action and then do not see it through – all the best laid plans in the world mean nothing if the necessary implementation does not take place. Especially in the wake of a crisis, a whole raft of promises can be made but if these are not accompanied by cultural shifts, new policies and maybe new people then they won’t be delivered. They made the promises, they need to show that they have been delivered.

The same rules apply – there are not sets of expectations that apply to some and not others in any organisation. Where it comes to behaviour, especially when there are clear rules and guidelines set down, all employees have to deliver. Senior teams certainly do not enjoy any level of immunity.

Journalists are rarely your best friends – those without communications experience can get into some bad habits when dealing with journalists, opening up a little too much or getting caught out by tricky questions.

Everyone’s favourite (short-lived) Director of Communications, Anthony Scaramucci, is a great example of what can happen if you don’t appear to understand the rules of the game (although in Scaramucci’s case he may have known exactly what he was trying to achieve…). It is worth listening to a fascinating discussion on the New Yorker Radio Hour with the journalist involved in the call with Scaramucci, Ryan Lizza. There was no discussion of ground rules or ‘off the record’, they simply spoke which made all the comments part of a great reportable story.

Comms teams need not only to engage with the journalist on the ground rules, approach etc but also insist on briefing the executive as well. No exposure should take place without this type of preparation.

There is no public vs private – the media, and particularly social media, do not distinguish between the public and the private. What is said and done can be talked about, especially for high-profile organisations or leaders. There is no closing the door behind you.  After-dinner talks, even if given to ‘friends’, can find their way online so no indiscrete comments or ‘jokes’.

By explaining where others have gone wrong, and considering lessons learned, hopefully your organisation can avoid the same sorts of mistakes.  When leaders see that you really can help them to make a difference and protect their reputations as well as that of the organisation then a fruitful relationship can be established.The emphasis is often placed just on leaders in organisations. But actually communications can help leaders to help themselves. No part of an organisations should simply expect to be taken seriously. Communications too sometimes needs to prove itself.

Image courtesy of flickr user Brandon Grasley

Stuart Thomson

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist at Bircham Dyson Bell LLP advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has worked on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including 'New Activism and the Corporate Response', 'Public Affairs in Practice' (for the CIPR) and 'The Dictionary of Labour Quotations' (published by Britain's leading political publisher, Biteback). 'New Activism and the Corporate Response' was called a book that "every aspiring business leader should read" by MIS Asia. Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues. Stuart recently released a book published by Urbane Publications, 'Public Affairs: News, Views and Hullabaloos' based on his blog. He is also a CIPR trainer and was shortlisted for the 2014 Director of the Year award by the IoD and CIPR.

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