Bob Pickard is principal, Signal Leadership Communication Inc.
Facebook is the latest infamous example of a new public-relations reality: When something goes badly wrong for a company in public, all eyes look to its leader. When the chief executive is absent or has nothing to say, then an information vacuum occurs, instantly filled by naysayers whose voices become a chorus of condemnation on social media. If companies let that happen, they cede the centre stage of public relations to critics, whose collective censure suddenly becomes the new conventional wisdom.
In a crisis communications situation, the online public doesn’t just expect to hear an explanation from a CEO, they demand it impatiently. Especially if there’s some corporate stonewalling at first, the CEO ultimately is almost always forced to say something about what’s happened. The beleaguered leader will often try to explain things in an initial statement using a “corporate speak” that is carefully parsed by legal counsel and, when such inauthentic comments fall flat, outraged online communities start howling for a sincere apology. Finally, the CEO is forced to come out and offer a proper “sorry” in order for the fury to subside.
Whenever this predictable cycle repeats itself, the public spectacle of controversy is invariably labelled a “PR disaster.” This term usually means that whatever the facts of the matter are, if a company’s CEO fails to communicate convincingly about a crisis – sincerely and in a timely manner – then it’s a PR disaster.
Time after time, this is how crisis communication now plays out, and yet we keep seeing companies making the same mistake over and over again. We saw it last year with United Airlines, and we’ve seen it just this week with Mark Zuckerberg’s belated damage-control communiqué, sullying his company’s image and shaving billions off the stock price.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg apologizes for mistakes his company made in how it handled data belonging to 50 million of its users and promised tougher steps to restrict developers' access to such information.
Today, it is remarkable how many high-profile corporate mistakes are now called PR disasters, regardless of whether the corporate public-relations function is actually disastrous. In most cases, the failure is one of leadership communication. Failure by the CEO to attach more importance to corporate communication than to compliance concerns. Failure by the CEO to listen to the corporate communicators instead of the corporate lawyers. Failure by the CEO to grasp the power of one’s own personal communication on social media to shape successful public-relations outcomes.
For better or worse, there can be no doubt that social media has made PR more crucial for companies than ever before. The public strongly agrees. Our partner firm Nanos Research conducted a poll in 2017 asking 1,000 Canadians: “Do you think that with the rise of social media, public relations, also known as PR, is becoming more important, less important or as important for organizations today compared to 10 years ago?” Three quarters (76 per cent) said that PR is now “more important.”
We also asked: “When an organization has a PR disaster on social media, what would you say is the best way for the troubled organization to respond?”
Unsurprisingly, 70 per cent answered: “Acknowledge the problem and communicate on social media.” Yet, what are many companies still doing? Just the opposite: They are denying or minimizing the problem and failing to communicate on social media. As we have seen this very week, even a social-media company may be reluctant to communicate using modern PR practice on social media.
Unfortunately, many CEOs lack the experience and skills to understand the strategically critical value of their social-media communications assets. Others are timid and afraid of making a career-limiting mistake. Our research has shown that Canadian CEOs are especially cautious about using social media, with only about one in 10 now on Twitter, a lower percentage than in the United States.
Even among those who do “get it,” ego and hubris often get in the way. Some seem to reckon that they didn’t need to think much about PR to become a fabulously wealthy executive, so why should they now spend more time worrying about the masses on social media?
But today, with digital technologies firmly entrenched, the role of the CEO in corporate communication has never been more essential. That’s because they personify their brands at a time when companies are expected to communicate like real human people, not like machines or things.
Now, more than ever, the extent to which the CEO is personally involved with the corporate-communications effort is one of the strongest predictors of whether a company will experience a PR disaster in the first place. Specifically, I believe that almost all crisis situations can now be intercepted and successfully addressed with these five elements of leadership communication:
- The CEO is present on social media with an active account (in their name, but which PR advisers can support), ideally on Twitter, as all the journalists are there and because it’s the social network “where news happens now.”
- When the CEO becomes aware of a trending corporate crisis, he or she pro-actively and transparently discloses what’s happening so that people hear the news first from the company’s leader (and not from other sources that might make it look as if the company was hiding something.)
- The leader clearly describes what the company is doing about the crisis and how he or she feels about the people affected by the situation as it develops.
- If the company has done something wrong, the CEO sincerely apologizes and takes leadership responsibility for making things right.
- To ensure that media coverage and social sentiment about the unfolding situation is based on what he or she is openly sharing, the CEO provides updates at regular intervals, asking for community feedback, setting realistic expectations and helpfully pointing people toward resources offering information or assistance.
If corporate leaders communicate authentically this way on social media as a transparent source of trustworthy information – no weasel words, no spin control – and tune into the emotional wavelength of their communities with humility, empathy and patience, then they will prevent or quickly solve just about any so-called PR disaster.
“Weaponized” social media is a dangerous threat to public image, but it is now also the most powerful way to protect reputation if it’s used properly by people who know what they are doing.