The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has set off a Washington style mega-debate on succession planning. We’ll leave to others the political squabbling about whether we will have a new justice named and confirmed this year. But as in any crisis, there are lessons to be learned by professional communicators.
First: Is “succession planning” really the right term? Succession planning is actually a more orderly process, with candidates considered and developed over time. When a sudden event such as a death, incapacity, firing or resignation occurs, organizations are scrambling. According to HR experts, the situation invokes terms such as “replacement management” or “crisis management.”
Communicators may not be involved in creating business-as-usual succession plans or in the board room when the decision is made. But they should be in the crisis “war room” after lightning strikes to be more effective when communicating with internal and external stakeholders such as media, shareholders, employees, customers and the community.
When an executive or key official is rapidly replaced, the organization must be prepared to answer tough questions:
- If you did decide to make a change, why did you pick an internal replacement, OR why did you go outside?
- Will the new CEO be interim, or are you appointing someone full time?
- How much chaos has there been while decisions were being made?
The second is making sure a decision by the Board is the first step. Making sure the decision is properly communicated in a manner that protects the organization while also being respectful to affected family and friends.