In my crisis communications training seminars, I often hit participants with a scenario regarding the alleged personal indiscretions of their CEO. It might be a role playing exercise about sexual harrassment, substance abuse or financial impropriety. The purpose of the scenario is to get those in attendance thinking about the point at which the interests of their CEO -- or any other corporate officer -- diverges from the interests of the company and its shareholders.
I thought a lot about that over the past week as Fort Worth - based RadioShack struggled through a crisis related to its CEO David Edmondson''s indiscretions. It started with a newspaper investigation into his upcoming trial for driving under the influence. In the course of their research, the Fort Worth Star Telegram stumbled upon inconsistencies in the CEO''s academic records.
Through it all, it is clear that Edmondson had the same regard for the journalists as the CEO in this Dilbert cartoon. They were an inconvenience that could easily be fed excuses.
Only thing is, reporters will follow up on lame excuses and expose liars.
The lessons for public relations counselors:
1. Always encourage the CEO to tell the truth. You can''t control a person''s decision to lie, but you can forcefully advise them that any effort to distract from the truth will eventually be revealed and punished.
2. Counsel the board of directors to fully investigate. In the case of RadioShack, the board issued a statement in support of Edmondson in the first days of the crisis. Big mistake. Their statement should have been that they would launch an independent investigation.
3. Refuse to allow the organization''s public relations engine get tied to the CEO or any other corporate officer. The public relations counselor has a responsibility to the organization, not to any person. We have a good article on this subject, "Protecting Corporate Reputations During Crises," that explored the responsibilities of a PR practitioner when an organization''s CEO is thrust into a personal crisis.
4. Train an alternate spokesperson for the organization and keep the communication flowing. Even in the midst of crisis, an organization can work to communicate its key messages. If it does not, others will fill the vacuum.
5. Use the crisis as a teaching opportunity to increase awareness among the board and the CEO of the critical importance of public relations both internally and externally. The organization must continuously work to foster positive relationships based on trust and mutual respect. The people in charge must be reminded to n\Never take that responsibility for granted.