Most professional communicators learned a lesson in the importance of preparation and foresight from former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s infamous “I’d like my life back” comment at the height of the Gulf oil spill. Unfortunately, not all CEOs paid attention.
We’re going to use the recent blatant missteps by Gary Southern, President of Freedom Industries, to reinforce the impact of what a senior executive says and does in public during a crisis. Freedom is the chemical storage firm formed only three weeks ago that is linked to the toxic spill last week that cut off water service to 300,000 businesses and residents in West Virginia.
Consider Southern’s faux pas at a live news conference. Mr. Southern:
- Started with what he knew of the incident. He never expressed regret, sympathy or concern for those affected.
- Drank water (sic) from a plastic bottle throughout a news conference about the lack of drinkable water.
- Twice tried to end the news conference abruptly. The second time he was shouted back to the microphone by angry reporters; he returned meekly.
Reminder: Leaders need to be prepared for immediate and effective response to a breaking crisis that affects the public:
- First express concern for those affected. Explain what your organization is doing to help.
- Pay attention to optics. Don’t drink water from a bottle during a live broadcast. Thousands of people watching have no fresh water and this type of video goes viral in a nanosecond.
- Be patient. Any effort to cut off questioning abruptly will be highlighted by the media. It makes you look dismissive and uncaring. If you only have a few minutes, or suddenly have to end ongoing Q&A, explain why….”I need to meet with my crisis team and help direct our response. We will notify you when we have the next briefing. In the meantime we will issue updates on our website www._______.”
- Be prepared. Practice, practice, practice.