Should the CEO of a company be a spokesperson during a crisis?

The issue of whether the CEO should be a spokesperson for a company during a crisis is an important topic, writes Associate Professor Daniel Laufer.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, was criticised for not speaking during the crisis as a spokesperson for the company. The issue of whether the CEO should be a spokesperson for a company during a crisis is an important topic. Whereas the CEO can be an effective advocate for a company, in certain situations this strategy can also backfire. Some of you may recall the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, who was a spokesperson during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in the USA in 2010. One infamous comment from the CEO, “I’d like my life back”, is still remembered years later. The controversy around the CEO’s comments was extremely damaging to BP during the crisis, and it was an unnecessary distraction for the company.

One consideration in determining whether to use the CEO as a spokesperson is the severity of a crisis. When a crisis is very severe, the CEO as the leader of the organization should be visible. On the other hand, if the crisis is not severe, the CEO should keep a low profile. If the CEO is highly visible when a crisis is not severe, it could put the spotlight on the company. This is counterproductive for the company because a key objective in Crisis Management is for a company to return to its normal operations as soon as possible. The CEO’s involvement attracts attention from both the public and the media, so it unnecessarily prolongs the need to deal with a crisis.

Air New Zealand’s handling of two different crises is a good way to show the connection between the role of severity and the visibility of a CEO during a crisis. Back in 2008, an Air New Zealand plane crashed in France. During the crisis, Rob Fyfe, the company’s CEO, was very visible as the company’s spokesperson. On the other hand, during a relatively minor crisis which involved a returned flight from China to Auckland, the current CEO, Christopher Luxon, was not a spokesperson during the crisis. Air New Zealand’s approach during both of these crises was correct. In the case of the plane crash, it was important for the CEO to be visible during the crisis. During the China crisis, on the other hand, it was important for the CEO to keep a low profile because the crisis was not serious.

In addition to the severity of a crisis, another important consideration in determining whether to use the CEO as a spokesperson during a crisis is the CEO’s effectiveness as a communicator. How effective is the CEO in conveying control over the situation and compassion for the victims of the crisis?

In 2017, United Airlines experienced a highly publicized crisis in the USA involving the forceful removal of a passenger from an airplane due to overbooking. During the crisis, the CEO was criticised for his performance as the company’s spokesperson on a leading TV news programme in the USA. During the interview, the CEO spoke in a monotone and there were long pauses before he responded to certain questions. This created an impression that the CEO was not truly sorry for the treatment of the passenger who was dragged out of the plane. As a result, the company was not successful in conveying authentic compassion during the crisis.

It is worth noting that expressing compassion for the victims is not the only message that needs to be communicated by the CEO during a crisis. Convincing stakeholders that the company has control over the situation is also important. Does the CEO have the ability to convince stakeholders that he or she has the ability to manage the crisis, and prevent it from happening again in the future?

Training can help in preparing CEOs for communicating during a crisis. However, some people are more effective than others as communicators, and this should also be taken into consideration. If the CEO is not an effective communicator, a company should consider using another senior-level executive as the company’s spokesperson. Another option is to use the CEO as a spokesperson on a limited basis, with another corporate executive serving as the primary company spokesperson.

Facebook made a mistake in not having Mark Zuckerberg speak in the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting. The crisis was very severe, and the public expected to hear from the CEO. Mr. Zuckerberg could have expressed compassion for the victims and discussed how Facebook will address the issue of livestreaming on the company’s platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook, at the beginning of the crisis. Despite not being the most charismatic speaker, Mark Zuckerberg could been a spokesperson for the company on a limited basis, and another spokesperson from Facebook could have been chosen as the primary spokesperson. Facebook’s inaction regarding the utilization of Mark Zuckerberg as a spokesperson caused the public to perceive the company as insensitive.

The CEO is viewed as a company’s leader, and communications from the CEO can benefit a company during a crisis. This however depends on the nature of the crisis and the effectiveness of the CEO as a communicator. These factors need to be considered before a company makes a decision about whether to use its CEO as a spokesperson during a crisis.

This commentary originally appeared in Associate Professor Daniel Laufer's monthly column on crisis management in the New Zealand Herald.