CommCore Blog and News

The “R”s of CEO Crisis Communications

Even though she’s only been CEO for 5 months, GM’s Mary Barra probably thinks she’s been through 10 years of learnings and experience managing the current recall issues. Among other jobs, she has been the primary face of GM in Congressional testimony, employee videos and customer dealer communications.

USA Today columnist Michael Wolff wrote recently, “Once you go public like this, it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube. You’re out there now, transparently, or you’re in retreat. Once a CEO has spoken, has shown him or herself capable of public utterance, nobody really wants to hear from anyone else.”

At CommCore we counsel clients that the “public” face of an organization is important when a crisis becomes the focus of public debate and media coverage. What the CEO says in public, however, is the product of multiple inputs from PR, legal and investor relations – and others. Ideally the CEO will focus on what Northwestern University’s Medill School of Communications calls the “R’s” of Crisis Management, and engage in “brand defense” instead of “self-defense”:

  • Respond
  • Express Regret
  • Provide Resolution and Restitution
  • Take Responsibility and begin Reform
  • Reputation/Brand Rebuilding

The PR community debates the total number of R’s; we’re partial to the 7 from Medill. The 7 R’s will also prompt debate within an organization:

  • Does accepting responsibility compromise the legal position for lawsuits?
  • Is the CEO always the best spokesperson (note BP’s Tony Hayward)? Which R should the CEO not take?
  • How long after a crisis can you resume Reputation and Brand building, lest you be accused as insensitive?

Crisis Communications literature doesn’t provide a formula, it encourages healthy debate with an organization as to the right path to take. Nothing deserves more honest discussion and assessment than what a CEO does…or doesn’t…say publicly during and after a crisis.

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