Ronn TorossianRonn Torossian

When the dirigible Hindenburg caught fire in 1937 and was subsequently destroyed, resulting in 36 casualties, the tragedy was broadcast over the radio and filmed for later viewing. With the exception of the few present and those listening to their radios, the rest of the world didn’t learn about the disaster for another day or two.

Today, events like major catastrophes are seen “live” by millions worldwide. Public reaction to such tragedies is immediate and so, too, must be the response if your company is involved in a major disaster or crisis.

What constitutes major?

A major crisis is any event that could critically affect your company and even shut it down permanently or do long-lasting damage. Imagine a disgruntled employee poisoning your food products in retaliation for being passed over for a promotion and raise. What would happen if this was so widespread that your product ended up poisoning people throughout the country? Unfortunately, crises don’t respect weekends, holidays, and vacations. Disaster can strike anytime and any official statements must be immediate, regardless of what day of the week it is.

The role of the CEO

As leader of a company, the CEO would be expected to be the only spokesperson in major cases like this. When such a tragedy occurs, the public, government/regulatory officials and the company’s shareholders expect to hear from the leader of the company and not a trained mouthpiece.

Regardless of whether or not the CEO has had media training, the PR/communications team must have a plan in case of such an emergency. If there is none, they must meet immediately and flesh out questions they anticipate being asked, as well as key talking points. In either case, a meeting with the CEO to discuss these is critical, as well as a mock press conference, even it’s an hour or two before the real one.

At the press conference, the CEO must appear to be calm yet empathetic. The CEO needs to stay focused and not deviate from his/her key talking points. Viewer perception is everything.

Referring back to the above scenario, the CEO must display sympathy to the victims while reassuring the public that the company will continue to do everything it can to prevent anything like this from ever occurring again. The CEO should also point out any other positive things the company is doing.

The CEO should also not say anything that sounds defensive like “This could happen anywhere.” Nor should the CEO repeat any harmful buzz words in responding to a negative question like, “Could such a poisoning happen again?” Instead of replying, “No, we don’t believe another poisoning could happen again,” it would be preferable to respond with something like, “We don’t believe so” or “We’re aiming to prevent that.”

The main thing a CEO needs to keep in mind is that he/she is speaking to a broader public through the media. As distracting as some reporters can be, this is important to the future of the company after such a crisis.

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Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading crisis PR agency.