I recall the stories about bucket toilets. Very many years ago, it was the job of someone to physically carry buckets of human waste on the head to dispose. Unimaginable? Laugh if you want or feel disgusted. But that was it. Those in the profession did the dirty job at night and expectedly, never wanted to be associated with it. Who would want to identify with that kind of responsibility, never minding that “s**t business is serious business”? Generally, people still avoid talking about real s**t like a plague, even though money earned from such duties did not smell. No one practically enjoys doing a dirty job! No, not one.
However, the Public Relations professional is often times, seen as the one who should clean up any mess. Forget the corporate looks, glitz and probably, the glamour of the job. While the profession is clearly a dignifying one, it is actually one of the listed professions with the highest levels of stress due to the demands of the job. Problem solving is a responsibility of the Public Relations professional who is seen as holding the ace or magic wand to halt any crisis. But, who should really take the plunge?
“While crisis can genuinely not be avoided, many times, it can be prevented.”
How? The responsibility lies with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the organisation itself. Here, the term ‘CEO’ refers to the President, Governor, Senator, General Manager of a corporate entity or non-governmental organisation or political domain (Lucero et al. 2009), as well as a religious leader vested with power and authority. Although the position could be held by a man or woman, it would be referred to as male here. Many organisational crises would have been avoided had the CEO listened to the Public Relations professional or heeded other subtle warnings long before such issues boomeranged.
“The CEO must understand that his action or inaction has a ripple effect on the entire organisation.”
The Chief Executive should realise that he has lost his privacy as soon as he steps into office and that his house has become a glass house where everything he does is no longer a secret. He has also become a superhuman being who is seen as being almost infallible. “However, CEOs cannot become crisis leaders by default. They have to acquire the skills”, reiterates Caroline Sapriel (2017), an experienced corporate executive, crisis management and communications consultant. With such consciousness, it is more practical for the Public Relations professional to manage issues that inevitably, would come up.
The cap must fit
Eric Hodges (2008), mentions a few of the historical crises that rocked the world, including the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the NASA shuttle explosion and others. “In each case, that spokesperson was not a public information officer or other media representative, but rather a chief executive,” he stated. Mark Zuckerberg is a more recent example of CEOs in the eye of the storm, still paddling to keep the head of the organisation above the waters.
However, a CEO with reputational issues becomes an added pain during a crisis due to his action or inaction. A defective product, as we all know, is difficult to sell, irrespective of how well the exterior is packaged. A marketer, for example, would succeed in selling the product to a buyer the first time, but not subsequently, and remember, bad news spread fast? Having to manage reputational issues for an organisation, company or even political offices is similar. Then, when the Public Relations professional is called in, the boss would usually expect some magic.
“No fire-brigade approach can save the face of the organisation as much as if earlier warnings had been heeded, visible gaps closed, cues recognised and taken and the proactive, not reactive path towed.”
Unfortunately, such PR practitioner lives with the pain of not being listened to and has to wade through the mess in a bid to save the face of the organisation and the Chief Executive. However, in this day of digital media, the real story behind the story is out almost instantly, and sadly, it goes viral, thereby deepening such crisis. Tony Ola, a PR practitioner in Africa, agrees that the CEO does play a significant role in crisis management. He is “the real face of the organisation and should take the responsibility rather than pass the buck”, he says. Again, the Boeing 737 Max groundings come to mind here. Why did it have to take the organisation’s stocks to fall and the entire model of a plane to be grounded before the CEO showed up? While top performer CEOs are said to be mostly located in the United States of America in a survey reported by Forbes, they are indeed, all over the world. You may then wonder what the job of the Public Relations professional is? Of course, it is still multidimensional and multifaceted. Although the CEO cannot and would not be everywhere, cannot and should not do everything, he must realise that image-making in many ways, realistically begins and ends with him.