Ambushed: What’s a CEO to do?

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We’ve all seen it: The CEO on his way to his car, limo or plane after a disaster strikes, and the media are staked out. Unpleasant as this may be, your CEO needs to be prepared, calm, collected and free of defensiveness. “No comment” will only make things worse.

As a former reporter, I can assure you that when a CEO or other source simply stops, raises a conciliatory hand to quiet the crowd  and invites few questions, immediately the dynamic becomes more cooperative. This doesn’t mean rolling over and giving up the store, but taking charge and taking a few — a FEW — questions, very briefly, and promising to get back with answers where possible, and with a press conference where appropriate.

A prepared CEO is the best response to the ambush, and that’s where the communications pros come in. Prepare your leaders. Put them through the tests involving facts and patience. If a company’s accountability is an issue, be accountable.

Writer/editor Jane Davidson put this question to her colleagues on LinkedIn: What does the CEO do when an ambush happens in the parking lot? She compiles responses in an interesting column for her blog, and I am happy to share them here.

I would add once dissenting opinion: Pre-emptively avoid the ambush entirely by being available for one-on-one interviews with individual reporters — when possible, when it makes sense, and be consistent with all journalists. The one-on-one is far less adversarial and can diffuse a tense situation. This is not always practical, but when it is, grab the moment.

Second-best response: Hold a press conference and answer questions to the best of your ability. Don’t answer questions you can’t, and promise to get back later with more information. But be alert: journalists in a press conference take on a gang-up approach, so preparation, calm and candor are essential.




Posted on September 13, 2012