Haris Ahmed, Chicago Consultant: Who Should Be Your Company’s Spokesperson?
Haris Ahmed (Chicago) management consulting firm Pragmatium Consulting Group Inc. has more than two decades of experience with change and leadership. He has taught more than 100 executives on the finer points of change management, skills development, and public relations.
Before a crisis can unfold, it’s important for businesses to have designated a spokesperson. This way they can immediately respond to the situation and face the queries and complaints that come their way. The spokesperson may carry a different role from that of the PR practitioner but they may also be one and the same. There is, however, one rule of thumb when it comes to handling such reputation-defining events: the more serious the crisis is, the better it is to have a spokesperson that is high up on the corporate ladder. This doesn’t mean the CEO right away. In some cases, it could be another senior official or corporate officer. This way, the CEO may still be able to step in and address the issue, in case further action is warranted.
Why is it important to choose the right spokesperson? For one, his/her status could say a lot about the crisis. Think of it this way: when terror attacks hit the country, no less than the President of the United States steps up to the podium to deliver a unifying speech. This isn’t any different from a large firm being plagued by a scandal. The CEO’s presence sends a message that they are taking the matter at hand seriously. If anyone of lesser stature were to be thrown into the spotlight, the firm runs risk of giving the impression that they are not taking the matter seriously.
It’s understandable for CEOs to be uncomfortable in the spotlight. Although it would be much more advantageous for a company to have a CEO that can think on his/her toes, is articulate, and has a high degree of professionalism and emotional intelligence. One need only look at what happened to British multinational oil and gas company BP to understand this point. Back in 2010, the US saw one of the most devastating oil spills in the history of its waters, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP pleaded guilty to their negligence where around 5,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil had spilled per day on the ocean floor. As much as oil leaks are part of the nature of the industry, what isn’t was the CEO’s response to the crisis. Then CEO Tony Hayward is remembered for having said, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” A PR nightmare of a response, wouldn’t you say?
Naturally, Hayward’s statement was heavily met with criticism, even by the US President at the time, Barrack Obama. Hayward’s PR gaffe ended up costing him his job. He was shortly replaced by a new CEO three months later. Could this have been avoided? Certainly, once CEO’s understand the important role PR practitioners play.
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