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Train Your CEO for a Crisis: The Saga of the M&Ms

Train Your CEO for a Crisis: The Saga of the M&Ms

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Published by Bob Roemer
In a crisis, reporters will demand to talk with the chief executive officer. Especially if things start going wrong. Give your CEO media training.
In a crisis, reporters will demand to talk with the chief executive officer. Especially if things start going wrong. Give your CEO media training.

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Published by: Bob Roemer on Jan 13, 2012
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08/05/2013

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Train Your CEO for a Crisis: The Saga of the M&Ms

by Bob Roemer No matter what size your organization is, news of your crisis can be around the globe within 20 minutes, making your first statement more important than ever before. In the early stages of most crises, reporters are happy to take information from a company representative regarding the situation. That includes information in your initial response: confirmed details of the crisis and what the company is doing to protect employees, neighbors and customers. However, you can expect that reporters will demand to talk with a top manager, in many cases the Chief Executive Officer, or whatever title that person has in your organization. This is especially true if things start going wrong. The incident or event doesn’t need to be a catastrophic fire or other calamity. For example, I was a public relations manager with responsibility for crisis response at an oil and chemical giant headquartered in Chicago. One morning The Wall Street Journal ran a story about how a senior executive at another oil company referred to minority employees as “M&Ms.” The story was made more scintillating when the reporter mentioned that another executive brought a tape recorder into meetings about minority hiring to catch whoever it was using M&M as a slur. Although it was noted in the story that the acronym represented a method of managing, training and mentoring diversity and minority hires, not a slur, the story goes to a larger issue: minority hiring in the oil and chemical industries. Because a story like this can spread like a wild fire and it was only a short walk for reporters from their offices to our headquarters, our public affairs team started to work on messages. We also asked our outside communications consultant, a recently retired talk radio show host with a reputation of being tough but fair, to be the interviewer that afternoon. He regularly participated in the company’s ongoing media relations seminars and had worked with our CEO a number of times on various communication projects. Some of those questions were: “Are you satisfied that minorities are comfortable working for your company?” And “Are you satisfied with the mentoring program for newly hired minorities at this company?”

Our consultant recommended we select five random employees and sequester them in another room to watch and rate the interviews. We simulated TV interviews almost exclusively because they are the most difficult to master. Our CEO was an excellent communicator, able to connect with many types of audiences from investors to employees to neighbors of our refineries and plants. However, something was wrong that day. Frankly, he wasn’t up to his best and the employees’ evaluations showed it. After three attempts the consultant asked the employees and the public affairs staffers to leave the room. When it was just him and the CEO in the room, he gave him counsel on his performance. Later he told us what he said to our CEO, with the caveat that perhaps only an outsider could do such. “On most days,” he said, “there are about 50,000 employees working to give you what you need to run this company. “This isn’t one of them. Today you are working for them. “You must prove to your employees that what you say about the company’s work environment is more than just talk. You are the only person who can do that.” We reconvened and the CEO’s interview, incorporating our consultant’s guidance, was one of his best. We were certain our messages about the work environment were powerful and, most importantly, credible. Like many stories of this nature, “The Saga of the M&Ms” vanished the next day, but no one who participated in the media training session regretted having invested the time to be ready in case some reporters dropped in for a visit. Lessons Learned Don’t be blindsided. In today’s world of instantaneous communications, PR professionals must keep up with what the media is saying about their industry, as well as their organization, its products or services. Most of all they must safeguard the organization’s reputation. Understand the “primary issues.” You, or someone on your PR staff, should be responsible for identifying and explaining emerging primary issues that could damage your company’s reputation. Take your case to the media. Keep your top management informed of these issues and prepare a statement with the organization’s position.

Train to communicate. Conduct annual media relations training for the top people in the organization, focusing on TV interviews. Managers and supervisors should attend media training every three years. When the Balloon Goes Up: The Communicator's Guide to Crisis Response Communications is available at Amazon.com. © Bob Roemer

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