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Friday, 11 June 2010

CEOs, Chairmen, Crises and PR

Crisis PR

Re the BBC business editor, Robert Preston's blog: Peston's Picks piece on BP and the banks:

Although his main thrust is comparing the BP oil spill and the recent financial crises, he raises some key issues regarding media comment abilities at the top of companies in crisis situations. Writing about BP, he reports the chairman's absence from public comment.

He argues the CEO's role is to get on with fixing the situation and says the current CEO was "explicitly chosen by BP's board precisely because he was a nitty gritty geologist and professional manager rather than a PR wiz."

"What's more, the chairman is supposed to represent all interested parties - the executives, the other employees, shareholders, customers, and so on - in a way that is much harder for any chief executive, even in the good times."

While I agree the chairman can take some of the media flak off the CEO, I believe there's a role for both the chairman and the CEO to comment on appropriate levels in a complex crisis. The chairman may not be able to address the technical and operational details, but the CEO can.

I don't believe that any major company should be comfortable with the option of either having a CEO who knows the business or being a PR wiz. I have no idea whether that choice was made in this particular case, but in general, I do believe that it is reasonable to expect a CEO of a major concern to be able to perform on both levels.

I believe we ignore CEO and chairmen's communications skills at the risk of severe reputation damage. It is a risk that institutional shareholders, investors and analysts might want to check out by attending AGMs before committing too much of our pension funds to individual listed companies.

I doubt whether many people within a major company are to be prepared to stand up and tell senior people that they have a communications skills gap. It probably ranks alongside BO on the corporate taboo list.

But is is surprisingly common for people to arrive at the top of the tree having devoted a tiny amount of time to media skills. All too often people spend a day being media trained and that's it. That's them inoculated against the media!

No one springs forth from the womb with fully fledged communications skills, yet there is a collective blindness about putting in the effort to becoming good at it. The only surprise is that we all seem to expect to be good at it. We certainly beat ourselves up for not being good at it. And we can be reluctant to press senior figures into communications skills training when they are clearly demonstrating this gap in the skill set.

It's not rocket science to give CEOs top notch advanced media training and administer regular top ups until they improve if that's a known gap in the skill set. I have witnessed remarkable improvements in just a few hours, but it has to be done before a crisis swallows up all available time. Ideally, the foundations should be laid with good general speaking skills much earlier in a career, and organisations like are valuable and cost-effective allies for the next generation of would-be CEOs and chairmen.

Otherwise, a CEO of a major organisation with a known communications skills gap represents a reputation damage risk that is almost as big as failures in planning, but is much easier to spot and remedy.

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posted by Penny Haywood Calder at


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