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Rogue CEOs: Tips on Building Trust Between PR and Top Executives

Marla Cimini

Feb 9, 2020

A tendency to be outspoken can be a great quality in a leader, but even the best leaders slip up. Does that mean an inevitable crisis? Not if you've prepared ahead and built trust between PR and executives. Read on for real-world examples on navigating executive mishaps. For a complete guide to crisis management, read our ebook on using media intelligence to prepare for a crisis—or better yet, avoid it altogether.

When CEOs of corporations make major mistakes or utter unfortunate remarks that harm the organization’s reputation, it’s usually PR that must find a way to fix the situation. Within the past few years, leaders from large companies, including UberPapa John’s Pizza, and most recently, Amazon, have all negatively impacted their business through cringe-worthy comments and questionable decisions. All of these situations caused their PR team to mobilize into crisis mode quickly.

Although most PR people may not be dealing with CEOs who are household names, there are plenty of business leaders whose slip-ups can lead to an unexpected issue. But what can a PR professional do to avoid or lessen the fallout? And how do you guide a rogue CEO when it’s time to respond to the crisis?

According to Kim Marshall, a seasoned PR pro and co-founder of S’Well Public Relations, it is important for CEOs to be fully media-trained and ready for anything. Although she was not connected with any of the companies mentioned above, she explained that lessons can be learned when it comes to all crisis situations. She said, “CEOs need to understand that in the business world, anything that’s personal becomes instantly public. And a personal crisis can be incredibly embarrassing. But honesty is always the best policy—because you need to show that you are human.”

She pointed out that frequently, a CEO may want to “hide” a crisis or a bad decision. A true PR pro must convince a CEO that a decision was wrong and he or she must change tactics and their response to the media—quickly. She added, “Don’t hide or wait. It’s important to address the issue immediately. Some of the most common mistakes I’ve have seen CEOs make in terms of public relations are not listening to their PR team, not preparing for an interview, not realizing that nothing is really ‘off the record,’ and not understanding the on-the-ground reality of what their front-of-the-line employees are going through during a crisis.”   

Known for her extensive experience in crisis management, Marshall has dealt with a number of crisis where the CEOs did not handle a situation well. In one instance, she was working at a major resort when a tragedy occurred. “The resort featured a “swim with the dolphin” program, and unfortunately, two of the dolphins suddenly died. The backlash was so huge, even Greenpeace was protesting outside the resort. But instead of dealing with this honestly, the CEO recommended avoiding showing the dolphin area to any journalists—a true impossibility since their lagoon was a focal point of the resort.”

She continued, “If we followed this bad advice, it would have caused the resort’s problems to worsen, but I had to convince them to tell the truth and show that we care about the dolphins and the environment. We then launched an educational program and found the cause of the dolphin deaths was from a toxin from a nearby golf course. After we identified the problem, we were able to clean the area and ensure the other dolphins were healthy.”

Marshall shared another example from years later when she was working with a luxury resort that hosted a group of influencers. She explained, “We held a dinner in the hotel’s restaurant and unfortunately almost everyone had food poisoning the next day. But instead of doing the right thing, taking the blame and showing remorse, the CEO remarked that they probably caught the flu and didn’t apologize. I did everything I could to help the group and wrote an apology letter to each person myself. It was seriously a miracle that nothing bad was written about that experience, but I’m sure those influencers won’t be returning to that resort. If the CEO had responded in a kinder way, those individuals would have felt like we cared about their well-being.”

Marshall believes that CEOs should choose wisely when selecting their public relations directors or agencies, as those are the people who will be guiding them during a crisis. She said, “You definitely don’t want a ‘yes’ person or someone who is inexperienced. A tough, smart PR person can save you from a major crisis or a great embarrassment. A professional PR pro is always prepared for anything—and provides the most valuable advice.”

Key Takeaways

Don’t wait until hell breaks loose to get your CEO thinking about the public impact of their words and actions.

  1. Preparation: Your CEO is by default a brand spokesperson. Make sure that she or he understands this, and takes it seriously, especially if your executive is on social or interacting with journalists and influencers. 
  2. Trust: Everyone can slip up, but not everyone is prepared to take accountability for it. Sometimes ever. Let your executive know that you’re here to fix messes, and are prepared to take the lead when that happens.

For a complete guide to crisis management, read our ebook on using media intelligence to prepare for a crisis—or better yet, avoid it altogether.