Leadership in a crisis: Be visible or be punished

An article by Alder Media

It’s a little trite, but the place for the figurehead is at the prow of the ship.

If the leader of an organisation is not highly visible in a time of crisis, you can be sure he or she will be punished by the media.

You might think such public criticism is not entirely fair; it might even be spurious. After all, in this age of remote access and hyper-connectedness, you can be in touch, even in command, but not in the room. And in any case, a visit from the boss probably makes no material difference to operations on the ground, indeed it might actually divert people and resources.

No matter. The media will certainly be looking for accountability, and probably for a villain too. And it would be naïve not to take account of the public’s expectation that leaders be highly visible in a crisis, so you need to tailor your own crisis planning accordingly.

Useful actions to consider include:

  • Carrying out scenario-based planning exercises – these will refine your crisis strategy and focus the minds of leaders about how their responses might ‘play’ in public.
  • Undertaking regular risk assessments.
  • Organising simulations for managers and staff – practice is invaluable in improving preparedness and identifying potential stress points.
  • Testing the mettle of your media-handling using crisis simulation, and assess any media training needs that these reveal.

Memorably, President George W Bush paid a high political price for circling high over a flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, rather than looking the people whose lives had been devastated in the eye.

The recent Christmas floods in the north of England and Scotland, and the Environment Agency’s response, provide a vivid example of the havoc that can be wreaked on personal and corporate reputations if the person at the top is perceived to be absent at a critical moment.

The agency found itself explaining why chairman Sir Philip Dilley’s Wellington boots were not on the ground in Cumbria or York over Christmas.

The organisation had allowed the inference that its chairman was in the UK: it said he was ‘at home with his family’ for Christmas, and ‘available to participate in any necessary discussions’.

As we all now know, this was entirely true, but stretched a point. Yes, he was at home. One of his homes. In Barbados. This was the truth in letter if not quite in spirit.

So not only did this communication strategy provide the villain, it allowed journalists to introduce the narrative of a hapless organisation covering up for a callous (and handsomely remunerated) boss. And, of course, the gleeful juxtaposition of a sun-kissed Caribbean villa and an inundated cottage in Lancashire is precisely the visual image the Environment Agency’s comms team would have been trying to avoid. This was an organisation giving the media free attempts at goal, and the chairman resigned early in the New Year.

So what do we learn from this episode?

If you’re in a high-profile leadership role, you need to be mindful of public sensitivities and the need to be seen to care, seen to be fully engaged, seen to drop everything at short notice.

You also have to mind what you say, and this means you and anyone speaking for you need to be ready for media scrutiny of what you don’t say too.

Call it stretching a point or economy with the truth, but don’t be tempted to believe clinging to the narrowest definition of ‘factual’ is a shrewd PR calculation. The sin of omission will find you out. If you thought you were only trying to avoid an undeserved roasting, just watch the media turn up the heat.

With much of the flood-hit north of England under water, families were being evacuated, small businesses were ruined, despair and anger were everywhere. And it was Christmas.

On December 30, the Daily Telegraph got to the heart of the matter: ‘…if Sir Philip really believes that it is a pointless exercise seeing the huge scale of flood damage for himself, or listening to the concerns of shattered residents, then they may well ask what is the point of him.”

So, read the public mood, be sensitive to it, and be seen to be sensitive to it.

Alder Media Logo

Alder Media are a London based PR agency specialising in Crisis PR and Litigation PR. 

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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Steffan Groch

Partner and Head of Regulatory - Head of Sectors

I head up DWF's national Regulatory team as well as leading the firm’s ‘go to market’ sector expertise. I am also Chair of the UK Health and Safety Lawyers Association.