How to communicate during a leadership crisis

No company relishes a forced leadership change that unfolds in the public eye -- as some prominent companies like General Electric, Tesla and Papa John’s have recently learned the hard way. The unwelcome publicity all too often sends share prices on a downward spiral. Take Tesla, the forward-looking automotive and energy company based in Palo Alto, Calif. The company’s high-profile CEO, Elon Musk, was forced to step down as chairman late last month in a settlement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which had earlier sued Musk for securities fraud. Though Musk will hold on as CEO, the public drama has hit Tesla hard; in the few days following the SEC’s lawsuit announcement, the stock had tumbled by almost 14%.

Though Tesla is among the most visible company struggling through a leadership change at the moment, they’re far from unique in their troubles. In fact, leadership-change crises seem to be growing more common. According to a report from global consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., 154 CEOs left their posts in August 2018 alone, setting a new record for CEO turnover. The figure is 60% higher than that of August 2017.

Given these statistics, it’s not exactly unlikely that your company will eventually consult its own media communication challenges in the midst of a leadership transition. As a public relations consultant, author and speaker who specializes in branding and communication as well as a professor of communication at Maryville University, I have accumulated years of experience helping executive leaders out of these sticky situations, and I’m prepared to offer you a few of the most salient pieces of advice that I’ve seen lead to success over the years:

Provide information as soon as you can. During a potential crisis shrouded by uncertainty, no news is bad news. First step: keep your internal team informed of what they’ll want and need to know.  Give employees ample opportunity to ask questions. Facilitate group discussions led by people who can offer answers. Next step: get information out to the media. Make it clear to your communications team that they should work hard to facilitate interviews with the leaders the media wants to hear from. Conduct media-training workshops with everyone speaking to the media to ensure they confidently stay on-message.

Create different forms of messaging. These are no longer the days in which one well-worded press release will do the trick on its own. Instead, you’ll need to utilize the vast communication channels at your fingertips. In other words, write a press release and then rework it into a shareable blog post devoid of corporate jargon. Turn that blog into a video (featuring a company leader) that will play well on TV, YouTube and social media channels. Pull the audio from that video and create audio segments for podcasts and radio. Finally, be sure you’re tailoring your messaging with audience in mind: create distinct, targeted communications for your internal audience, for your stockholders, for your loyal customers and for your prospective customers.

Tap into empathy. Feeling -- and expressing -- genuine empathy is key. The relevance of this important emotion depends on your particular situation. If, for example, your outgoing CEO has displayed bigoted or immoral behavior (as in the case of John Schnatter, the recently ejected CEO and founder of Papa John’s), the focus should be on establishing that the organization's beliefs and values do not align with those of the outgoing CEO. Take visible, concrete steps following this immediate messaging to demonstrate the organization’s commitment to its stated beliefs and values. In other words, open up the checkbook or advocate for important policy changes.

Be prepared. If your organization has a CEO, no matter how saintly said leader may be, there’s always a chance of heightened concern when he or she must step down. Prepare your plan of action now -- ideally long before the day of departure. Who will be in the initial meeting following a leadership change? How will you issue messaging in those crucial first few hours after the company leader has left? How will you quickly organize media training in the first hour? Who will receive this media training? Your goal should be to communicate as quickly as possible.

To communicate strategically during a high-pressure moment in a way that provides value quickly, you must start planning now -- in the calm moment in which you don’t yet need to enact your plan. Cooler heads are more likely to remember the importance of empathy, of training programs and chains of command snapping into action. Let those cooler heads prevail now, rather than in a moment of crisis that could make such a state feel out of reach.

Dustin York, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of communication and serves as the director of the undergraduate communications program at Maryville University. He also serves as a marketing and social media consultant.

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