CEO Missteps: 6 Steps to Maintaining Stakeholder Trust

Melissa Baratta

Everyone makes mistakes. They’re a part of everyday life and making them doesn’t usually lead to long-term repercussions. When you’re a CEO, however, your every move is being monitored by employees, clients and the media.

One mistake can significantly impact your reputation as well as the stability of your company. The media has recently highlighted several high profile executive missteps, including Lockheed Martin CEO Christopher Kubasik’s "close" relationship with a subordinate and CIA Director David Petraeus’ extramarital affair with his biographer.

As a PR executive, what would you do if your company or client CEO had a personal blunder that went public? How do you fix the mistake and regain stakeholder trust?

Stakeholders are your brand ambassadors, and their confidence in the CEO can be a driving force behind the growth or decline of the organization. Here are six essential steps to maintaining stakeholder trust after a CEO mistake. 

  1. Monitor the conversations: Monitoring the situation is key to successfully containing it. Always be aware of what’s happening in the media and online to gauge whether or not commentary is needed. As soon as the crisis hits, rally your team and designate people to handle media monitoring and inquiries 24/7. Having a monitoring team in place will help contain the story as well as ensure no “surprises” arise.

  2. Acknowledge the situation: Silence is often seen as an omission of guilt, so it’s essential to participate in the conversation. Communicate that your team is aware of the issue, and let your audience know that you’re evaluating the situation and will announce further details when they’re available.

  3. Develop the messages: Company messages around a high profile executive mistake must be delivered in a truthful tone, but that doesn’t mean you have to immediately accept blame for the situation. Wait until you have all the details on the situation before you make a detailed statement. If an apology is appropriate, it needs to be authentic and not a rehearsed statement, or your company’s reputation could be damaged even further.

  4. Select the spokesperson: Based on the situation, quickly determine who will be speaking on behalf of the company. Does the executive need to apologize personally, or should the statement come from a VP of personnel, a communications director or the board? Be sure to identify a leader who will be trusted by the public and who is comfortable addressing the media. Finally, make sure the spokesperson is media trained and up-to-date on the situation and current public opinion.

  5. Identify the communication platforms: To put out the fire, you need to go to the source. If people are talking about the issue on Twitter, it’s important to address the situation directly on Twitter. However, in order to reach your entire target audience, you may need to look to other platforms as well—consider posting a video on YouTube, writing a response on the corporate blog, issuing a media alert or all of the above. Every situation is different, so you’ll need to decide quickly which platforms would be appropriate for the issue at hand. Also be prepared to respond to online comments/questions wherever you post a statement. If you don’t respond to inquiries quickly, you could risk further backlash, causing the crisis to snowball.

  6. Create a future crisis communications plan: After the situation has been addressed and is becoming old news to the media, it’s time to look forward. Create a crisis management plan to ensure you’re prepared for any future issues, and conduct media training and scenario-based simulation exercises every 6-12 months to ensure your team understands the protocols.

Every company will face a crisis at some point—and unfortunately, for some companies that crisis is due to a CEO mistake. It’s important to be prepared for all scenarios so that if and when a crisis occurs, you can manage it effectively, regain stakeholder trust quickly, and get back to business as usual.

Melissa Baratta is a vice president at Affect, a public relations and social media agency based in New York City. Established in 2002, the company specializes in technology, healthcare and professional services.  She can be reached at [email protected] or @mlbaratta.