A PR Pro’s Worst Nightmare? What to Do When Your CEO Goes Rogue

Your client, the CEO of a major company, is volatile, impulsive, and possibly even abusive. She’s tough to talk to. He won’t listen to smart advice.

Sound familiar?

Even outside today’s West Wing, you’ll likely have to manage a CEO-caused crisis.

Denise Kaufmann, director of North America client development for Ketchum, has worked in Hong Kong, London and across the U.S., now based in Chicago—and she’s seen and heard it all.

“It helps a lot to take a deep breath,” she says. It also helps to know what resources are available to help you and your agency manage the fallout, whether the CEO’s behavior is illegal, immoral or just ill-advised.

“What are the right resources in your organization and in theirs? What about their lawyers and their communications staff?”

Your number one job is protecting the company’s reputation—not that of its CEO, she says. That’s up to the firm’s board of directors.

In the moment:

Stay calm!

“Once a person calms down, they listen,” Kaufmann says. In the heat of a difficult moment for everyone—shareholders, customers, investors and employees—“you really have to be a calming force for good.”

But move quickly

Your reputation—yours and theirs—“can crumble in five minutes,” she cautions. “Be on the front foot. Control it!”

Swallow your fear.

You may be afraid to confront someone with a seven-figure compensation package. Don't be. It's your job.

But that's not easy for many of us, especially for some women. “It is different for women,” Kaufmann says. “You really need to be assertive.” They hired you for your communications expertise. Rely on that.

Document everything.

Detail your conversations with the CEO in writing and send him or her a copy. Make sure there’s a clear record of when you offered fact-based strategy and advice, even if it’s ignored.

Reach out to a trusted network of advisers for advice and insight.

If this is your first taste of corporate chaos, contact others who’ve already survived it: former professors, professional organizations, peers, and mentors.

Build relationships in advance.

Create a solid partnership with your client or senior leaders. They’ll be more inclined to heed your counsel when they already know, like and trust you.

Prepare for disaster before it happens.

It’s a somewhat predictable list, including financial chicanery, extramarital relations, sexual harassment, tone-deaf statements, outright bigotry or racism, arrests. Think through scenarios, however unlikely you think they are, and plan for quick, smart reaction. Role-play demanding and challenging media questions with the CEO and alternate senior staff so they’re prepared in advance. Fifty percent of these dramas are foreseeable, says Kaufmann.

Know your stuff!

Your best tools to handle a CEO-caused crisis are your experience and knowledge of how to manage communication. Knowing your job instantly communicates authority and expertise and will go a long way to getting things to a calmer place. Make  sure to learn the company’s culture and how it all works. Know “how the pieces fit together,” Kaufmann says.