PR Crisis Management: How to Mitigate Brand Damage When an Executive Has Fallen

In a recent interview for NZ Management magazine, Impact PR Crisis Management specialist  Fleur Revell-Devlin talks about how corporates can manage media outcomes in a scenario where the errant activities of one of the organisation’s senior executive team have been publicly exposed and threaten to damage the company’s brand.

Q. In these sort of situations – where a senior leader has stumbled, what advice do you give to the organisation?

There are two possible scenarios, firstly the organisation may want to accept the mistakes of their senior leader and have them maintain their position or alternatively they are wanting to manage the exit of that executive and are seeking to mitigate damage to their brand.

Under the first scenario, the organisation needs to work with the leader in establishing the key messages they want to communicate. They need to make sure that they’re open to telling the truth about the situation and talk about the way they’re going to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.

Under the second scenario where they need to prioritise the needs of their brand, the company may look to portray the mistake as an isolated incident which they are currently investigating.

The process of investigation precludes them from needing to comment immediately on the full details and may give them some opportunities for the media spotlight to wane. At the same time, they should be sincere in communicating their efforts to address the issue and putting in place processes to prevent the situation from reoccurring.

Q. How do they front foot it when a leader is seen to be at fault?

If a CEO is at fault and the company wishes to retain him/her then its important that the person involved is front and centre of any crisis communications.

The CEO would make a statement explaining the rationale behind any misdeeds (for example stress) and the remedy which has been taken, i.e time off or stress counselling. This statement along with key messages would be best utilised in an exclusive interview with a high reach title which can be syndicated, allowing the CEO and organisation some control within the media coverage. 

To ensure trust is not lost with the brand, and there is no suggestion that it is a systemic issue throughout the organisation, it is important for the company to come out quickly with the truth. 

It is also important to consider maintaining communications with stakeholders and those who the media might turn to for comment on the issue.

Q. In these types of scenarios, how would it differ from some sort of external crisis such as a food recall or a bad environmental disaster for an organisation?

In these situations, a food recall or environmental disaster would have a much more serious consequence because we’re not talking about a business leader with their own personal or professional issues. When you’re talking about a product recall or an environmental issue, you have the potential for a significant impact on the consumers/public.

In either of these situations, the organisation’s most senior executive/leader must be the spokesperson to illustrate just how seriously the company is taking this.

They have a responsibility to communicate the issue immediately and frequently update the media on what steps have been taken to rectify the situation.

In an environmental situation, they would be expected to work alongside other local and government agencies to ensure the situation was controlled. Following the crisis, it’s important the company conducts an audit and communicates to its publics what steps have been put in place to prevent a further incident of this nature.

Q. Does the PR crisis management differ substantially (from other types of issues)?

With any crisis, it’s important an organisation is seen to be acting as quickly and proactively as possible, especially if it’s going to impact the community or consumers. The first step is to rally your internal crisis response team and your external PR counsel and align on what the key messages you want to convey are. It’s essential that you acknowledge there is a problem and you’re upfront with your audiences. 

PR crisis management communications means that you are constantly working around the clock to update other external stakeholders like community groups or consumers or environmental or other governmental organisations to make sure that you’re transparent and providing them with minute-by-minute information – as it becomes available to you.

Q. Do you think there is another element at play here – ie – tall poppy syndrome etc. How would you describe it? Does it make the situation worse?

Senior executives may be expected to maintain a higher standard of conduct than other members of an organisation as they are often put forward as the face of the company. 

In the same way, a member of a high profile sports team can bring an entire team into disrepute for their actions, the behaviour of a corporate leader can colour the inner management of an entire organisation. 

Q. For that particular person involved, what is your best advice to them personally…their reputation is at stake, but it often seems to be the chair or another party fronting the media.

This is a really tricky one, because if you’re working for a business then part of your contractual obligations mean you agree to conduct yourself in a way that will not negatively impact the business. If you have done this and breached your employment contract then really you are likely to be told not to comment.

In this situation, the Board chair or similar would act as spokesperson and communicate any company messaging. For example, a high profile sporting star who has behaved inappropriately and garnered negative media attention on his professional sports team is unlikely to be given the opportunity to defend himself publicly.

Instead, the team management would front to media, provide a statement and launch an investigation. Following this the player may be given the opportunity to a) apologise or b) make a statement saying he’s pleased to have his name cleared if the hearing went in his favour. 

There’s also a tendency for people to want to have their side of the story heard, and I think you also need to be mindful of that. Sometimes there is a time to just say nothing and outwait the media and hope things run their natural course without you having to say too much. 

In PR crisis management, balancing any potential employment law issues with that of potential damage to the brand can require walking a fine line. On the one hand, the legal advice may be to say nothing too media to protect the legal process and yet following this advice may starve the consumers of the answers they need at a critical time – making the company seem evasive and unaccountable.

Q. There are always two sides to every story, how do they get their side across? And should they try?

If a story is factually incorrect, defamatory or misleading, then there is a case for a company or individual should have this misinformation corrected and ensure that the facts are on the record. 

Once that’s done, then it’s time to step away. So I’m a firm believer in telling the truth and getting your key messages out there and then moving on from the story and focusing on the positive things that your organisation or the person is doing with stories later on.

Q. And anything else you think might be relevant in such cases.

It is important that organisations look to plan for these events well ahead of time. One of the most common challenges we face is trying to mitigate a situation when there has been no crisis management preparation. Relevant executives need to be media trained and they need to be aware that they cannot put media on hold indefinitely. 

Companies need to be aware that they are working to the media’s timeframe in these situations and that once journalists have a sense an organisation is holding back they will often become aggressive in seeking out the details. 

If you have questions about crisis management, contact us today – we would love to help.