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What to do when the CEO leaves

For the average corporate communications director, having a CEO with a high profile can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand their profile is useful – their instant recognition with the media helps to penetrate hard-to-reach audiences and boosts the corporate brand. However, at some point a CEO’s high profile may well prove to be a problem as – whether carefully planned or otherwise – they will need to leave the building, permanently. The departure of a company’s top brass naturally attracts the glare of public attention, which only intensifies when the CEO leaves suddenly and the media seek to scrutinise the ‘story behind the story’. Questions will naturally be raised as to whether the company can continue to be a success in the face of destabilisation from the leader.

So what do you do when your CEO’s departure is, well, sudden?

Obviously the last thing to do is wait for the media to call or for that first dreaded tweet to break the news. Emotion most likely will be running high within the business, therefore it is important to set a calm and rational tone in all communications, both internally and externally, and to have an official statement ready to distribute quickly. Gossip may well run rife in the hours and days immediately following a departure, so be thorough in making all communications clear and unambiguous to avoid playing into the hands of gossip mongers who will try to read between the lines. Ensure the official statement gives a clear reason for the departure and uses language that cannot be construed as sub-text for an acrimonious split, which will only serve to unsettle stakeholders.

Once the CEO has fully left the organisation, you are no longer duty bound to protect the individual. This can be a tricky one for comms professionals who develop a close bond with the CEO, as it’s vital to find the right balance of communicating about their previous record without diminishing it. Ultimately however, your responsibility is to the business. Make clear to media the questions that you can, and cannot, respond to. If a new CEO has not been immediately appointed, provide a clear timeframe for when a successor will be determined, and ensure the same senior company leader represents the business in all statements.

The business environment for most companies is extremely tough and the person occupying the CEO’s chair is exposed to ruthless measures if they don’t perform. Add big personalities to the mix and it’s little wonder that disagreements lead to departures sooner than might have been planned. Ultimately, the best course of action for the corporate communicator is to create a reputational buffer, especially if you think there’s a chance your CEO will soon be leaving. Ensure there are others in the leadership team who are part of any profile-raising programme, and share the opportunities for exposure afforded by thought leadership and corporate commentary.

When the CEO leaves the company, the media, staff, customers, suppliers and many other vested groups will want reassurance that the ‘show will go on’, and this is helped by a leadership bench that’s visible.

Having a star CEO can be great, providing you the benefit of being highly selective with your communication opportunities, but beware the temptation of allowing them to be your only company leader in the spotlight. After all, no one person can be bigger than the business.

Written by Kate McFerran, partner and head of reputation at agency Westbourne Communications

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