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Preparing CEOs for day one of a crisis

Contrary to popular belief, it’s the first 24 hours that are likely to be the easiest part of a crisis for a modern CEO. Provided the company in question is properly set up to deal with adverse events, of course. For serious longer-term crises, it’s what comes after the first day that requires some raw instinct, quick thinking, and difficult decision-making from CEOs, set against severe sleep deprivation and what feels like a constant state of uncertainty.

Remember “The Buck Stops Here" motto that President Truman used to keep in his office as a reminder that he’s the man in charge? It was there for a good reason: President Truman got to make some of the toughest decisions any president is required to make, including the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What modern CEOs tend to face, of course, pales in comparison to that. However, the same principle applies. As the court of public opinion sees it, CEOs are ultimately and personally responsible for their company’s past, present and future decisions. Even in situations that resulted from their predecessors’ actions. Hence, we’ve seen corporate crises destroy executive careers, bring personal attacks and public parliamentary inquiries upon them. Personal impacts on CEOs can be immense.

According to a PWC Global CEO Survey, two-thirds of 1,400 global CEOs surveyed believe their businesses face more threats today than three years ago. Over 50% are concerned about their readiness to respond to a crisis. The spectrum of what modern companies can face spans information leaks, cyber-attacks, product recalls, and supply chain issues to name a few. The question is whether modern CEOs do enough to prepare.

Interestingly, modern executives train to stay in shape, run marathons, fly airplanes, and manage people. How many undergo regular crisis management and crisis communication trainings alongside their teams, is anyone’s guess. But one thing is certain: there is no good luck in crisis management. Crisis response can only ever be a success when preparation meets opportunity.

Here are a few tips on setting modern CEOs up for success in the first 24 hours of a challenging situation:

  1. The early bird catches the worm: enhance a CEO’s visibility and personal presence in good times, including on social media, in order to build enough credibility that will serve well in a crisis;
  2. Have an umbrella ready before it rains: build the right crisis team around the CEO, invest in updating crisis communication playbooks, protocols and procedures, capitalise on statement templates written in the right tone of voice and style to enable fast crisis response;
  3. Measure seven times, cut once: schedule regular crisis trainings and live crisis simulations to practice fast-paced decision-making for a CEO and the core crisis response team, including working through situations with multiple and often conflicting stakeholder interests;
  4. Forewarned is forearmed: use social media monitoring as an early warning system to spot emerging issues early. Use social media measurement and analytics to be able to correctly brief your CEO. Always prepare for leaks ahead of official announcements;
  5. Never bid the Devil good morrow until you meet him: use subject matter experts and media data analytics to help you determine when an issue turns into a crisis, and aid your CEO’s decision-making.

Article written by Anastasia Ivanova, senior account director at Ketchum

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